How Jewish students in Belfast are celebrating Chanukah this year

No, it’s not Jewish Christmas

For students in Belfast, this will be a festive period like no other. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has ensured that returning home for the holiday season won’t be an easy feat.

Whilst steps have been made in the right direction with the slow roll out of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and QUB offering asymptomatic testing for students, it is still going to be a weird one.

For some, it will be the first time celebrating the festive season without the company of family and friends. Travelling home this year is unsafe for a number of students in Belfast and many have made the decision to remain in Belfast over the holiday period. Jewish students are no exception.

Every year, Jewish people celebrate the Jewish calendar festival, Chanukah. It usually takes place in December and, this year, it starts from nightfall on 10th December.

The eight-day holiday celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people who were oppressed by the Syrian Greeks approximately 2,000 years ago. It is often honoured by lighting one candle per day on a menorah with eight branches, to remember the eight days that rededication of the Temple, which was destroyed by the Syrian Greeks.

Some Jewish traditions have also attributed the eight-day period to the small amount of oil that miraculously burned, and spread light, for the eight days of the festival.

Like most holidays in the Jewish faith, Chanukah is usually celebrated in the company of family and friends. But the Jewish student population in Belfast is international, and most, if not all, Jewish students in Queen’s University Belfast Jewish Society (QUB JSoc) are not from the island of Ireland itself.

Whilst some are from Great Britain, many are from the United States, Europe, or even Australia. This means that the Jewish student population is disproportionately affected by the travel restrictions imposed on students this festive period and many will not be travelling home.

QUB JSoc itself, has been affected by the ongoing restrictions too. Meeting up inside isn’t a possibility and meeting up outside in December in Belfast is, well, cold.

Regardless, the society still has plans to potentially meet outside, if the weather is mild, and to organise an online celebration event for the Jewish student community.

Speaking to The Belfast Tab was one member of the QUBJSoc who said that, in absence of returning home, or being able to meet up with friends, he is “planning on making festive foods like cheese latkes and breads” to keep up the tradition.

Others will light menorahs in their own homes in Belfast, tune in to Zoom services from their respective synagogues, and celebrate with family online.

The Jewish festival of Chanukah could not be more fitting for Jewish students in Belfast this semester. It is about finding light, after there has been darkness. And this year, more than ever, has been full of darkness with hope for a brighter future.

Jewish students, much like the whole student body in Belfast, can only be hopeful that next year will offer a brighter festive season.