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Religious Communities Adjust Holiday Practices

Hanukkah begins Thursday night, though celebrations are likely to be vastly different this year. (Photo: cottonbro)

*Clara Haizlett reported this story

Religious communities observing holidays this December are modifying their usual celebrations.

Diego Fernandez is the pastor at Iglesia Vida Nueva in Richmond. Over 14 different nationalities are represented in the roughly 120 member congregation, the majority of them from Latin America.

In previous years, Fernandez says they’ve always had a Christmas service on Dec. 24, and after, the whole church gets together for dinner. 

“This year it’s going to be totally different,” he said. “This year all the Christmas activities are cancelled, all the special services and the dinner. Every family will celebrate alone in their home.” 

He says Christmas is an important holiday for the Latino community, and it’s during this time that they celebrate themes of fellowship and unity. He says this makes the cancellation particularly disappointing to the congregation, many of whom are immigrants. 

“Families are usually alone, and so the unity of church makes us feel like a family,” he said. “So a night like the 24th is a day where people don’t want to be alone.”

But he says the community understands the gravity of the situation and despite the disappointment, they all feel a responsibility to keep the congregation safe. The church will continue their regular Sunday services in person, according to the state’s social distancing guidelines. 

Rabbi Michael Knopf, of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, says Hanukkah celebrations this year will be virtual. But he says that isn’t such a bad thing. 

Knopf says the synagogue will also be hosting community candle lighting services almost every night of Hanukkah, something they’ve never done in the past. Usually people stay at home with their families to light the Hanukkah candles. But this year, they will all virtually light their menorah together. 

“It was an option available to us, I suppose over the past several years, we just never considered it,” he said. “And people are really looking forward to it. The opportunity for us to all be together - even as we're separate - is really great.” 

The synagogue will still host their annual blood drive on Sunday. 

“Originally, Hanukkah wasn't about giving gifts to each other, it was about giving to those in need,” he said. 

That obligation is especially significant now, Knopf says, as the Red Cross seeks to prevent another national shortage of blood donations. 

He says Hanukkah is a holiday of hope and light, symbols that deeply resonate this year.  

“I feel like this is a time where we need Hanukkah more than ever,” he said. “We're in a dark moment. But we have the capacity still even in this dark moment to be hopeful.” 

Hanukkah is an eight day holiday that lasts until the evening of Friday, December 18.

*Editor's Note: This piece had some formatting issues that were fixed.

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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