Stock chanukah menorah

Many Jewish preschool teachers in Cleveland and Columbus are adapting their lessons about Chanukah traditions to a virtual format to encourage social distancing and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Normally, we would have a celebration where we would invite parents,” explained Debra Kellner, the director of Jewish education for the Early Childhood Learning Center at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus in Columbus. “Every year, the classes are doing different activities and learning and cooking and reading stories and singing songs. Most of that will continue in a different way this year.”

Instead of lighting the menorah in class as they would normally do, Kellner said children are invited to sit down with their families during each night of Chanukah and watch their instructors light the menorah.

The Mandel Jewish Community Center of Cleveland in Beachwood has adopted different strategies to continue teaching preschoolers about Chanukah during daily classes.

“The big difference between pre-COVID and now is really that cooking is one thing that has been suspended from our space,” said Jackie Gordon, a pre-kindergarten instructor at the Mandel JCC. “Where we would make latkes, children would be able to handle much of that cooking experience themselves.”

Now, however, Gordon said cooking activities aren’t possible, while other classroom Chanukah staples like spinning dreidels for gelt, are being treated as though they were culinary exercises, with children being reminded to wash their hands whenever they touch communal objects.

The Mandel JCC is still holding in-person candlelighting ceremonies for its evening preschool classes, though its larger, community-wide candlelighting will transition to a Facebook Live format. For that event, it partnered with local organizations like the Jewish Children’s Library of Cleveland and their own fitness center, Club J, to provide different forms of entertainment in addition to the nightly lightings.

Instead of hosting a large annual gathering like it typically does, the JCC of Greater Columbus will host an event called “Mishpa-Hanukkah” Dec. 13, bringing parents and students together on Zoom. The intergenerational celebration, Kellner said, will help connect students of various grade levels as grandparents read stories aloud.

Both Gordon and Kellner said reinforcing the themes of Chanukah is especially important this year, when preschoolers might not be able to attend events in typical fashion.

“I think it’s a time to still connect and we can still have community and be together,” Kellner said. “Part of Chanukah is about light and dark times. We can still have Chanukah lights, we can still be together as a community, just safely and virtually. There’s still opportunities to sing together virtually, to celebrate the holiday.”

Gordon said parallels can be drawn for preschoolers between the events that took place during the first Chanukah and the current pandemic.

“The Temple was destroyed, there was sadness, there was frustration,” she said. “There were a lot of the things that we’re all feeling, going through COVID-19. To realize that after darkness there is still light, I think it’s a really important concept that can be easily brought into an early childhood classroom.”

Collin Cunningham is a freelance writer from Cleveland.

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