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By Shawn Raymundo
As the sun began to set over San Clemente on Monday evening, Dec. 14, marking the start of the fifth night of Hanukkah, Rabbi Mendel Slavin looked out over a sea of cars parked in a lot at the Outlets at San Clemente.
“This is the strangest thing that I’ve ever done in my life. I’m talking to a bunch of cars,” Slavin joked to the few hundred people who had gathered for a drive-in menorah lighting ceremony that the Chabad Jewish Center held in lieu of its traditional events.
For years, Slavin and the local Jewish center have celebrated Hanukkah by gathering dignitaries and hundreds of members of the community to light a Menorah at the historic pier and at the Outlets.
But with 2020 being what it is, and as the nation enters the darkest period of the pandemic so far with surging coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and ICU admissions, the rabbi and his wife, Tzippy Slavin, were forced to react quickly and alter their course.
“This all started about a week and two days ago, when we realized that due to the rise in cases in Orange County, we would not be able to perform our Hanukkah at the Pier and Hanukkah at the Outlets the way we felt was safe to the community and for our neighbors,” Rabbi Slavin said.
Admittedly, he said, he was ready to move on, calling it a “Hanukkah COVID.” But for Tzippy, he continued, she was adamant about keeping the local event alive in some capacity, spending a night to work on the drive-in concept.
“We have over 80 cars and 250 people!” Slavin exclaimed of the success of his wife’s efforts, eliciting celebratory horn-honking.
“Some might feel a bit down about Hanukkah,” he later said, adding that for the event, “we are switching this around and taking control of the narrative. We are announcing, in proud Hanukkah fashion, that we have and will be using the gifts of technology that God has granted us.”
Rabbi Slavin said that over the past few days, the center has received calls from people inquiring how they can celebrate the holiday amid the pandemic, as well as asking what the state laws were in terms of COVID-19 restrictions.
“Most of all, it seemed like we were all wondering how to bring back the classic Hanukkah feeling with everything going on,” he said. “There’s no better holiday than Hanukkah to give us the power to perform beyond our limitations.”
The eight-day tradition of Hanukkah, also referred to as the Festival of Lights, commemorates the miracle that the Maccabees witnessed during the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem around 200 B.C.
According to Jewish text, the Maccabees had only enough oil to keep menorah candles lit for one day. However, the flames lasted for eight days, giving them enough time to find a new supply of oil for the menorah.
“Using the light to combat the dark, the menorah’s light has lit the way for us throughout the darkness of our history—traveling with us, to every exile we have endured,” Rabbi Slavin said. “Now we are faced with a challenge. A social distance, a palpable disconnect that we have all been thrown into.”
Slavin continued that many remain “unsure how to celebrate or how to make this Hanukkah count. Once again, the Hanukkah lights whisper the answer: Persevere.”
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.