By STEVEN NALLEY
This year, Hanukkah happens to start right in the middle of exams at Mississippi State University.
The exams began Friday and will continue through Wednesday; Hanukkah begins at sunset Saturday and continues through Dec. 16. As president of MSU Hillel, MSU’s only Jewish student organization, Joey Frost said he has seen this scenario before.
“Hanukkah is during exam week this year, but it is not that big of a deal for us. Last year, it was also during school,” Frost said. “My family deals with this through Skype. My sister and I have a menorah, (a candelabra used in Jewish tradition,) as do my parents. We will say our prayers and light the menorah with my parents, via Skype. Without this, I’m not sure how we would handle the situation.”
The tight-knit Jewish communities at MSU and in the Starkville area are finding ways to celebrate Hanukkah, even before many of them begin their winter break.
Daniel Snyder, another member of MSU Hillel, said the organization has proven invaluable for bringing Jewish students together. He said this unity proves especially important for Jewish students living far from home, especially at this time of year.
“We have students from North Carolina, California, New Jersey and even Israel that really value the family atmosphere that we can provide during holiday times. Without Hillel, I would have never met half of the members we have today,” Snyder said. “Unfortunately, we cannot control when Hanukkah falls on the Jewish calendar; however, we can control when we choose to actually get together and share a celebration. Last Friday was a convenient time prior to exam week for most of our students to come together and have fellowship. Likewise, my family is choosing to postpone our celebration until I get home. I’m sure they will still light a menorah on the appropriate nights.”
Hanukkah commemorates the Jews’ rededication of their temple in Jerusalem after their successful revolt against the kingdom of Syria, documented in 1 Maccabees. According to the Talmud, when there was only enough ritual oil to burn in the temple’s menorah for one day, it miraculously kept burning for eight.
As a result, the menorah has become one of Hanukkah’s central fixtures and a favorite for MSU associate psychology professor Carolyn Adams-Price. She said she converted to Judaism in honor of her grandparents on her father’s side, who were forced to leave Europe during World War II and hid their faith when they came to the U.S. after all they had been through.
“However, I have always had Jewish friends, and (I) felt that being Jewish was part of my identity,” Adams-Price said. “My favorite thing about Hanukkah is how beautiful the menorah looks when all the candles are lit on the last night. The latkes are great too.”
Latkes are fried potato cakes; frying foods in oil is another way Jews commemorate Hanukkah’s ritual oil miracle. Snyder said the latkes are a favorite of his as well, and he enjoys the nostalgia it evokes for years past at different relatives’ homes. Frost said he enjoys Hanukkah traditions as a whole.
“Just like every family who celebrates Christmas has their family traditions, we have our Hanukkah traditions,” Frost said. “My family has a book that retells the story of Hanukkah and has prayers and songs. Every year since I can remember, we have read from this book. I plan to continue the tradition of reading from this book with my children someday.”
Adams-Price said one benefit of an early Hanukkah is that it will enable Temple B’nai Israel in Columbus — the nearest synagogue to Starkville — to hold its annual Hanukkah dinner on Sunday before many of its congregants have left town. Frost said MSU Hillel has celebrated Hanukkah both together with and separate from Temple B’nai Israel, depending on the situation.
“We find that the great congregants at Temple B’nai Israel always welcome us with open arms, and we are (grateful) for their kindness,” Frost said. “Also, (MSU baseball) coach John Cohen and Mrs. Nelle Cohen have been great in helping our organization. They have hosted multiple events at their house, including celebrations for various holidays.”
Snyder said MSU Hillel celebrates all major Jewish holidays and meets almost every Sunday at City Bagel Cafe. He said he hopes for MSU Hillel to increase membership from 25 to 50 students in the next five years through recruiting in the Memphis, Birmingham, Jackson and New Orleans areas.
We strive to create positive Jewish experiences for our students every single day. Whether it is a pot luck Shabbat or celebrating Passover at a community member’s home, we want to make our university’s community feel as close to home as possible,” Snyder said. “(In the) long term, we are looking to acquire a building close to campus to be used as a Hillel House. We hope to be able to raise enough funds to be able to support Hillel House efforts within 10 years.”
MSU Hillel is on Facebook, on Twitter and on the web at http://jewishlife.org.msstate.edu/ .