The winter holidays are usually a time to be with family, but college students can often find themselves far from home and must find their own ways to celebrate.
For the Jewish students at SF State, it’s a rite of passage to discover what celebrating Hanukkah means to them as adults.
“It’s kind of like passing the torch,” said SF State alumni Jordan Hopstone. “When you’re a kid your parents are teaching you and giving you something that has been passed down for generations and generations, and when you do it on your own, it becomes yours. You have some ownership of it.”
Hanukkah, commonly called the Festival of Lights, celebrates when the holy temple of Jerusalem was desecrated by the Romans and there was only enough oil to provide light for a single day. As the legend goes, the lights burned for eight days straight creating hope during a time of war and religious persecution.
Eight of the nine candles represented on the candelabra-like candle holder represent the extra day that the oil lasted, while the ninth is the “helper” candle to light the others. The eight-day ceremony is centered around the theme of oil, which translates to food rituals as well fried donuts and potato pancakes called latkes.
Before Hopstone graduated in 2009, he was deeply involved with Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity on campus. He described his experience celebrating Hanukkah away from home as a significantly different and liberating.
“It wasn’t like going to Shabbat services with my family. It was creating a circle of Jewish friends creating my Jewish experience for myself,” he said.
After 38 years of surveying students, a UCLA study released in 2005 showed that 80 percent of students are interested in exploring their personal spirituality, which is a recognized sentiment within the Jewish sorority and fraternity.
Genia Slavin, the current president of the Jewish fraternity and SF State senior, expressed similar sentiments about defining a personal relationship with the Jewish faith and celebrating Hanukkah, but also mentioned that college is a time to explore different ways of life.
“In the sorority, there are some girls who aren’t Jewish,” Slavin said. “But they’re interested in finding out more about the culture. They haven’t celebrated Hanukkah before but want to become more aware and more understanding.”
Jackie Snow, Jewish sorority president, agreed with Slavin’s assertion that religion is not the most important aspect of celebrating Hanukkah.
“We don’t require that (our members) be Jewish,” Snow said. “We want our members to have an interest in Jewish values, a sisterhood based on Jewish values like philanthropy, friendship, strength and womanhood.”
Sororities and fraternities, as well as campus clubs, often advertise membership early in the semester. Students interested in religious organizations, or even atheist and agnostic groups, are often seeking a new way to interpret a previous religious identity from home, according to the UCLA study.
Religion can provide students with a sense of community or allow them to experience something other than what they’re used to.
“I think college is a really important part of networking, meeting other people, branching out and learning things outside of your norm,” Slavin said. “I had my own my own level of comfort and it was about getting out of that comofort zone getting to know people.”
However college students intend to integrate into a community environment, Hopstone believes that there is a more universal message to the experience.
“It’s all part of the American experience,” Hopstone said. “Interacting with people from different faiths and exchanging gifts is something that everyone can relate to.”