Even though Lance Cpl. David Pfeifer, 20, isn’t sure that he’ll be able to make it home to celebrate Hanukkah with family this year, the U.S. Marine is excited that for the first time ever, he’ll be marking the holiday with other Jewish troops stationed around the world.

From the deserts of Afghanistan to icy outposts near the North Pole to aircraft carriers in the middle of no one can say where, Jewish military personnel are being invited to a massive, first-time-ever Zoom Hanukkah party hosted by Chabad’s Aleph Institute, which provides resources for Jewish service members stationed around the world.

Word is spreading fast. Pfeifer heard about the online event on a WhatsApp chat for Jews in the military. He says he’s looking forward to listening to the popular Jewish a capella group, the Maccabeats, who will be featured on the online celebration, and, of course, to the camaraderie. “It’s a forum where I can get together with a lot of Jewish service members and Jews in general for a Hanukkah celebration, if not personally, then at least virtually,” he says.

Coronavirus safety considerations mean that public celebrations of Hanukkah, the eight-day “festival of lights” that begins Thursday evening, Dec. 10 and runs through Friday, Dec. 18, will look different everywhere this year, including on military bases around the world.

Rabbi Elie Estrin, military personnel liaison and a U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain, explains that since public celebrations on military bases won’t be possible, Aleph decided to facilitate a Hanukkah experience that could for the first time connect people across time zones online. “We can have an event for hundreds, if not thousands, across bases, and they can all join in together,” he says. “We wanted to let Jewish service members feel a sense of pride in serving the country while also providing a connection to their holiday traditions.”

Since public celebrations on military bases won’t be possible due to the coronavirus, Aleph decided to facilitate a Hanukkah experience that can connect people across time zones online.
Since public celebrations on military bases won’t be possible due to the coronavirus, Aleph decided to facilitate a Hanukkah experience that can connect people across time zones online.

This is the first time they’ve tried something of this scale online, notes Estrin. Menorah lightings will take place at the proper time at individual bases, and the collective Zoom event represents an opportunity to join with peers they would not otherwise have met, and to foster a sense of community.

It’s an opportunity that is being shared in many different ways around the world. Aleph’s Zoom Hanukkah is part of a global campaign that will see Chabad-Lubavitch reach 8 million Jews in more than 100 countries in this pandemic year. An estimated 10 million unique visitors are expected to use the practical “how to” guides and discover many layers of meaning at the movement’s Hanukkah.org website. Additionally, Chabad will help families bring the light and celebration of Chanukah into their homes by distributing approximately 64 million Chanukah candles, more than 700,000 menorah kits and 2.5 million holiday guides in 17 languages.

‘We’re Coming to Them’

Julian Horowitz, music director for the Maccabeats, says he’s looking forward to the chance to share this year’s Hanukkah program with military personnel worldwide. “We are joining with them for Hanukkah wherever they are in the world,” he says. “We’re coming to them.”

This year their show, which will incorporate live and prerecorded elements, will have a much wider reach, he says. “On a normal Hanukkah, we would only be able to perform a few shows in a few cities for a few people, but here, we’re able to perform for people around the world and to interact with them.”

Last year, U.S Air Force Senior Airman Daniella Bert, 26, drove six hours to San Antonio to see the Maccabeats perform and to celebrate Hanukkah. This year, she’ll be online watching them. “I love the Maccabeats; I listen to their music all the time,” she says, adding that since she joined the military in 2017, she’s tried to annually drive to the nearest big city one night of Hanukkah to share the holiday with others.

The popular Jewish a capella group, the Maccabeats, will be featured as part of the online celebration.
The popular Jewish a capella group, the Maccabeats, will be featured as part of the online celebration.

Bert says she knew the holiday would be different due to the pandemic, but remembering last year, thought it would be fun to see if there was a way to watch the Maccabeats perform again. She connected with Estrin, and the virtual concert was put in motion. “It feels really good to be able to connect with my people; I don’t feel so alone anymore,” she reveals. “I’m happy that I’ll have the Maccabeats, even though it might only be online, it’s something I can smile about and look forward to.”

The holiday is a chance to show Jewish pride, she adds. “I’m proud of who I am, and I want people to see that,” she says. “I want them to see the holidays are real—that people are proud of their own holidays.”

She says having Estrin and Aleph there to help orchestrate the event has helped her see the strength of the community. “We’ll find each other, and we will help each other not feel so isolated,” she says. “It’s the support I feel; for so long, I felt so alone being the only Jewish person. I reached out to Rabbi Estrin—he’s based out of Alabama, I’m in Texas, and here we are, putting on an event. It’s pretty cool.”