OP-ED: Dueling Chanukahs

Last Sunday, the New Orleans Jewish community had to make a choice in how they ushered in the Chanukah holiday. 

No, the tradition of lighting candles and oil-filled holders was still very much intact. The spinning of dreidels and the singing of “Ma’oz Tsur” were, likewise, traditional aspects to celebrating the holiday. And lets not mention latkes. They are still firmly and fully in fashion.

It wasn’t that there was a major sporting event taking residents’ mind off the impending holiday. The Saints had taken care of the Tennessee Titans in a fairly impressive manner earlier that afternoon.

No, for the first time in recent memory, the two biggest Jewish community celebrations – the Chabad Lubavitch’s Chanukah at the Riverwalk (their 30th anniversary) and the Jewish Community Center’s Community-Wide Chanukah Celebration – were held opposite each other and at virtually the same time.

Several hundred people attended both events, but Jewish community members had to decide where they wanted to be. Many of those weighing their options in what was less-than-spectacular weather (overcast and rainy skies) decided in favor of the indoor celebration held at the Uptown JCC. The LeeVees performed for the enjoyment of the younger set, who were encouraged to dance and spin like the iconic holiday’s dreidels. Free chicken and latkes with applesauce and holiday cookies provided by Kosher Cajun Delicatessen also sweetened the deal.

For those who didn’t mind the inclement weather or having to pay $5.00 to park nearby, the Spanish Plaza offered an opportunity to recall 29 previous outings at which the Chabad Lubavitch organization regularly pulled in the largest annual Jewish community crowds. There were also a plethora of activities for the kids and music to get Jewish and non-Jewish revelers into the spirit. Unfortunately, despite all the hoopla attached to such a major anniversary, the combination of sketchy weather and another competing indoor event, appreciably scaled back the normally dense crowd.

To their credit, the Chabad Lubavitch organization enjoyed the time and made the most of  their event, which invites everyone to bring light into the darkness of the world. Several community leaders were on hand to light a massive 11-foot tall, wooden Chanukiah constructed by Holocaust surivivor Isak Borenstein of blessed memory. This included Jewish Federation CEO Arnie Fielkow, who managed to be at both events.

But Arnie was the exception rather than the rule.

In the past, the Chabad Lubavitch organization had always reserved the first weekend to usher in the holiday. It is inherent in their wanting to announce the arrival of the holiday at its outset that they have always picked the first Sunday of the holiday for their celebration. When that coincides with the first (or second) night of the holiday – as it was this year – it is perceived as especially significant.

By contrast, the JCC has traditionally chosen to hold its event on the second Sunday or on a Sunday prior to Chanukah so as to maximize the numbers of people it would attract. With the LeeVees performing and the shelter of the Uptown campus, the JCC’s event did extremely well. Still, they could have drawn several hundred other community members had they maintained their practice of not holding their event at the same time and on the same date as Chabad.

No one should be blamed here. Each organization is certainly free to hold its own community events at its own choosing. There may have been several factors as to why the JCC and Chabad’s annual events were opposite one another.

Nevertheless, in the future we hope such a scheduling conflict can be avoided. The New Orleans Jewish community needs to show its solidarity and support for each other over the course of a holiday season most often connected with another major faith group’s own celebration. It is better when more Jews attend one event in unison rather than having their loyalties tested or split between two events.

We should not have to pick and choose which celebration to attend. Looking at the future Jewish calendar, there seems to be no potential conflicts until 2024 (5785). That’s because in five years the first night of Chanukah falls on December 25. Let’s hope planners can figure out the best course of action for that date well in advance.


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