West Philly synagogue’s virtual Hanukkah party raises thousands for neighboring nonprofit

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The Kol Tzedek Simcha band’s Zoom performance. (Kol Tzedek)

The Kol Tzedek Simcha band’s Zoom performance. (Kol Tzedek)

COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way the Jewish community are celebrating Hanukkah this year.

For West Philly synagogue Kol Tzedek, that meant taking their annual Hanukkah party virtual, while also using the holiday to raise money to support their neighbors.

Jews have a long history in West Philadelphia, which used to be a Jewish stronghold until the mid-1900s, when many families began their exodus to the suburbs of the Main Line and elsewhere across the Delaware Valley.

The West Philly Jewish community almost faded away before it began a resurgence in 2004, when Reconstructionist Jews founded Kol Tzedek in Philly’s Cedar Park neighborhood. The congregation describes itself as “a mixed multitude; people of varied ages, abilities, and genders committed to racial and economic justice.”

In any other year, KT’s Hanukkah party would be attended by hundreds in person at the shul on 50th Street near Baltimore Ave. But with the pandemic, and local officials requesting that people stay home for the holidays, they decided to take this year’s party to Zoom.

The theme for this year’s party was “Joy in Resistance,” which was inspired in part by the Joy to the Polls campaign, spearheaded by the Working Families Party, that encouraged dancing and celebrating through Philly as a way to combat the stress of Election Day.

Kol Tzedek Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari. (Kol Tzedek)

“Hanukkah is a story about how we react to hegemonic governments, and hellenism, and imposing forces. And it’s also a story about publicizing joy and miracles and kind of taking the inner light and letting it shine forth,” Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari said.

He said the campaign was “such good medicine.”

“It really transcended so much divisiveness and it was so healing,” he said. “We wanted to continue to find joy in resistance and make that a healing power in our community.”

Every year, Kol Tzedek’s annual Hanukkah party raises money for either their Jewish community or one of their West Philly neighbors. This year, the party benefitted YEAH Philly, a Black-led organization offering paid work, family financial assistance, and a place to hang out for West Philly teens affected by violence.

Fornari lamented that the West Philly Jewish community in the past left the area under pressures of white flight. Now, having existed in West Philly for 15 years, Kol Tzedek’s congregation still strives to be better community members.

“Some of the blight and harmful redlining that continues to affect our Black neighbors here in West Philadelphia, white Jewish communities in the ’50s really perpetuated,” he said, adding that KT’s mission is to “redeem and reclaim that history by reemerging as a Jewish community that’s directly involved with our Black neighbors.”

Over 100 users logged into the party this year, and many were families and couples squeezed onto one screen. They participated in Hanukkah Trivia, watched a Great Jewish Bake-Off, lit candles, and listened to music by the shul’s in-house KT Simcha band, who pre-recorded a stellar medley of Hanukkah staples over webcam.

KT’s Hanukkah party raised over $3,000 for YEAH Philly, with a callout for the KT community to try and raise $1,800 more.

YEAH Philly co-founder Kendra Van de Water said the group is about to purchase a building in West Philly that will provide a physical space for the area’s young people to get away from violent situations.

YEAH Philly mobilized to give away food, protest and do other community work during the pandemic. (YEAH Philly/ Facebook)

“Usually the rec centers are centered around kids under 12, so there’s nowhere for young people to go to. It’s going to be a one-stop shop,” Van de Water said. “We’re really creating this holistic community center where no matter who you are, you should be able to get the things you need.”

Van de Water said donations have helped the group raise money for the building.

“Because of you all, and our communities and foundations and everyone, we’re able to purchase it in cash,” Van de Water said. “So now we’re continuing to raise money for the renovations.”

Fornari wants Kol Tzedek to foster a Jewish community that gives back to its neighbors.

“Kol Tzedek is part of a growing movement of progessive Jewish synagogues really committed to racial and economic justice where our political and our spiritual values are intentionally and consistently woven together,” he said. “And we don’t understand them to be separate, but inseparable.”

At the end of the party, music director Rabbi Mónica Gomery led the group in a Hanukkah blessing.

She said the word “Hanukkah” comes from the Hebrew word “חנך‎” meaning to dedicate and urged those in attendance to reflect and rededicate themselves to their values, including supporting social justice work in the area.

“In the case of the Hanukkah story, it’s to scrub away the defiling qualities of hellenistic empire that kept the Jewish people from being able to have their temple,” she said. “The Maccabees took back [The Second Temple in Jerusalem] and they did the act of ‘,חנך‎’ of scrubbing away in order to recenter their values, their beliefs, and their sacred practices in their community.”

She added that it’s important that the members of the congregation “remember to support our neighbors and leaders in abolition, youth organizing, and justice work in Philadelphia and beyond.”

Kol Tzedek will continue to hold Zoom-based candle lightings for the remaining days of Hanukkah, the last lighting on Thursday night.

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