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Menorah Lights the Way for Reenergized Campus Jewish Community

A celebration dating back more than 2,000 years gave Jewish students a chance for a new beginning on campus.

A Hanukkah party on Tuesday, November 30, brought together students from the University of Southern Maine, the University of New England, Southern Maine Community College, and the Maine College of Art and Design.

It began with the lighting of a menorah outside the front entrance of the Abromson Community Education Center on USM’s Portland Campus. The menorah holds a candle for each of the holiday’s eight nights, plus a ninth “helper” candle that is used to light the others.

The party fell on the third night of Hanukkah, so Rabbi Levi Wilansky from the Jewish outreach organization Chabad of Maine lit the corresponding candles. Wilansky said, as far as he could remember, it was the first public menorah lighting on USM’s Portland Campus.

“Hanukkah is a time of family, community,” said Wilansky. “To get together tonight with students who are away from their families and to be able to have a space to celebrate together. . . It’s such a difficult time. It’s needed more than ever, to come together.”

After songs and prayers around the menorah, the party moved inside to the Student Diversity Center which is maintained by Intercultural Student Engagement. Students from different programs and different colleges got to know each other while snacking on traditional foods like donuts and latkes with applesauce.

Several party games also helped to break the ice. A dreidel was always within easy reach, and new friendships were made in the course of comparing spinning techniques. The competition got a bit more heated with a trivia contest about Hanukkah history. The winner was Sarah Swanick, a third-year student in Medical Biology at the University of New England.

“I miss going home for the holidays, so it’s nice to be able to still celebrate the holidays in the way that I’m used to,” Swanick said.

Accompanying Swanick from UNE was her Medical Biology classmate, Arielle Sedman, who added to those sentiments, saying, “It gets kind of lonely here around the holidays, especially because it is such a small [Jewish] community on campus. It is nice to have that sense of community.”

The Hanukkah party was an outgrowth of the work being done by Southern Maine Hillel to build a more active Jewish community across the college campuses in the greater Portland area. Hillel director Lorin Troderman said he hopes to see faculty members join students at next year’s party.

Natalie Ben-Ami, a third-year student in USM’s Political Science program, expressed her interest in helping build bonds between Jewish students. “With Hillel revamping, it’s something truly incredible to see as it was down for quite some time,” Ben-Ami said. “It means a lot to me because I’m able to share my past experiences with people who want to learn."

That invitation from Ben-Ami found an eager recipient in Bridget Yellin. “It’s really been fun reconnecting,” Yellin said. “I kind of lost touch with my Jewish roots. Me and Natalie, we’re in the same major, and she really encouraged me to be here.”

The historical roots of Hanukkah go back to the second century B.C.E. A powerful foreign regime ruled Israel and tried to snuff out Jewish traditions. A small group of Jewish fighters called the Maccabees drove their oppressors out. When the Maccabees retook the Holy Temple, there was only enough oil left to keep the candles burning for one night, yet the oil miraculously lasted for eight days. Hanukkah celebrates that miracle with the lighting of the menorah.

“In a dark world where things are negative and hard and we struggle, it doesn’t take much,” Wilansky said. “Just turning on a light, lighting a candle just pushes away darkness. The idea of just being positive, doing something good, helping somebody, pushes away that negativity and really makes a positive energy.”

The Portland Campus was one stop in Wilansky’s week-long Hanukkah tour. He’ll bring his menorah to the Maine State Capitol in Augusta on Thursday, December 2, where he’ll be joined by Gov. Janet Mills for another lighting ceremony. The menorah will also shine its light on the ice rink at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland for Jewish Heritage Night at the Maine Mariners hockey game on Sunday, December 5.

This year's Hanukkah observance began at sundown on Sunday, November 28, and it ends at sundown on Monday, December 6.