Chanukah, the eight-day Festival of Lights, can present celebrating students with a major snag at many college campuses: Citing safety concerns, many university administrations forbid open flames – such as those from a menorah – in school dormitories.

That tends not to matter most years, as Chanukah frequently occurs during winter break. But this year was the first in a long time that students en masse sought to light their candelabra on school grounds. Chabad Houses across the country, in turn, bolstered their long-standing effort to ensure that any student who chose to light a menorah would be able to do so.

Students, such as University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign sophomore Jacob Cahnman, appreciated the push. Years past have seen classmates resort to fake menorahs made of felt and Velcro, and according to the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity brother, the winter months can exacerbate a sense of disconnect from Jews back home.

“It can be really hard as a student,” he explained. “Usually, right when Chanukah begins, it starts to get really cold. There are finals coming up and everybody is busy studying and getting really stressed out. People often start to get really depressed around this time of year.”

From the University of Washington to the University of Kansas to the University of Florida – where the Gainesville school boasts the largest Jewish student enrollment at any public academic institution outside of Israel – Chabad Houses with the assistance of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation distributed more than 21,000 menorahs and organized festive, latke-filled Chanukah events attended by more 38,000 students. Perhaps most significant, rabbis worked in partnership with various local officials to safely and legally facilitate menorah lightings in on-campus student housing.

“We are concerned with fire safety,” stated Kirsten Ruby, assistant director of housing at the University of Illinois. “But we also know that cultural events are very important to the student experience, so we were very happy to work with [Chabad] and make the menorah lightings possible.”

Per UIUC regulations, the candle lightings took place in central areas or the lobby instead of in students’ rooms. Students were trained to use available fire extinguishers, and someone was on hand to monitor the situation.

“A lot of what Chabad does is to make Jewish life on campus more possible,” points out Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, director of the Chabad Center for Jewish Life at the University of Illinois, who helped to spearhead the menorah-lighting project. “We do this not only by offering programs, classes and campus-wide events, but by assisting in the day-to-day needs of every Jewish student.”

ZBT president Eric Chapman lights a menorah provided by Chabad.
ZBT president Eric Chapman lights a menorah provided by Chabad.

Continued Support

For the entirety of the holiday, Tiechtel hopped from frat house to sorority house to dorm, providing students with prayer booklets, deep-fried donuts traditionally eaten during Chanukah, and a warm, friendly face.

“Rabbi Dovid coming to our house to light the menorah with us was definitely special,” said Dustin Massel, UIUC junior and president of Sigma Alpha Mu. “Most of the members typically don’t light the candles, so him coming over really showed Chabad’s continued support for our fraternity.”

Regardless of religious affiliation or level of observance, said Rabbi Yossy Gordon, vice president of the Chabad on Campus International Foundation, every student at menorah lightings at 140 campuses across North America was made to feel welcome.

“We are very proud of our ability to convey the timeless ideals of Judaism to students from all Jewish backgrounds,” said Gordon.

For UIUC sophomore Ashley Perl, the strong Chanukah presence enabled her to celebrate being Jewish in the midst of a non-Jewish environment.

“Since I’m in a non-Jewish sorority, Chabad gave me a place to go when I wanted to be around the holiday spirit,” she said. “Rabbi Dovid made sure we had menorahs in our house so that anybody that wanted to participate could.”

Laurence Bolotin, executive director of Zeta Beta Tau, the nation’s first traditionally Jewish fraternity, has been fielding letters, emails and phone calls from ZBT chapters nationwide touting Chabad’s beneficent work on campus.

“Chabad has mastered the art of engaging Jewish students and making them feel completely comfortable,” praised Bolotin. “One thing Chabad has done to set their organization apart is that they make people feel special. Students truly feel like it’s a home away from home. They provide a valuable support power in the Jewish community on campus.”

Cahnman, who tackled the role of dorm-lighting coordinator at three dorms with large numbers of Jewish residents, noticed a dramatic difference in the overall feel of Chanukah on campus this year versus last year.

“We really made an effort to share the lights of Chanukah with all the students on campus,” he said. “Ushering in the Chanukah spirit really helped boost student morale.”