Happy Hanukkah! A joyful festival of lights to everyone celebrating.
As we enter Shabbat and mark the middle of our eight-day Hanukkah festival this weekend, many people will have the joy of hosting and attending Hanukkah parties. It’s one of my favorite parts of the year. Bonus points if you refer to your Shabbat/Hanukkah festivities as “Shabbanukkah.”
As we invite loved ones to celebrate with us, it’s important to make sure our holiday events are as welcoming and accessible as possible. Here are a few suggestions on how to make your Hanukkah gathering a hit:
1. Provide Specific Information
Give details to your guests so they know what to expect. If you are making a facebook event or sending out an email, write a short version “You’re Invited to Our Latke Cookoff” and a long version. Your long version should try to anticipate common questions and needs.
What’s the situation with parking/rides/transit? Are there any notable allergens or pets in your space? What food, if any, will you have at your event? Are there accessible entrances (ramps, elevators) available? Is the event, or parts of the event, appropriate for children?
2. Explain as you go
Not all people celebrating a Jewish holiday will have the same relationship to Judaism– some guests may be more traditionally observant, some guests may only celebrate a handful of holidays each year. Other guests may identify as “jew-ish” and others may not be Jewish at all!
As a Hebrew school teacher, I’ve gotten comfortable explaining things as I go, even things that may seem self-explanatory or obvious. Sometimes, I’ll quietly ask guests if there’s a part of the tradition they’d like to explain to the group, such as singing the candle lighting blessings or explaining the reason we eat latkes. I make sure to offer some tasks that involve Hebrew and others that don’t. No matter how much a person knows about Hanukkah, I find that they light up when explaining it to others!
3. Invite, don’t coerce, participation
When I host a Hanukkah party, it’s my goal to make it easy as possible for people to participate the way that feels best for them. I keep a bag or bowl of kippot (head coverings) out, offer transliterations, and invite all of our guests to join in song and prayer as they feel comfortable.
This works best when it is also paired with a clear, stated respect for people’s autonomy; some people want to try new foods, cover their heads for the first time, or say a blessing they’ve never said in Hebrew. For other people, this may not be comfortable– or it may even go against deeply held religious or ethical beliefs. Remember what you learned in middle school about peer pressure? Don’t be that dude at the Hanukkah party.
4. Have multiple, clear “zones” at your event with specific purposes
Whenever I’m setting up for a party, I like to imagine special “zones” for different activities. A zone for eating Sufganiyot and meeting new friends, perhaps a zone for dancing, a zone for louder group-based interactions. I also plan a zone for people who need a bit more quiet, or for parents who need to breastfeed or calm a child.
If alcohol will be served at the party, I also try to have it in a somewhat separate space, perhaps on its own table or in a kitchen. This is a great help for people who are sober, don’t drink for religious reasons, and for families. For this reason, I’ve also been trying to plan party games that don’t use alcohol as a center point– this can not only be unsafe, it can also be marginalizing to people who don’t drink.
If it helps to physically draw out your party space and map specific activities within the room(s), go ahead and do that. And don’t forget about lighting!
4. Be inclusive with language
Work to make sure your guests have the language tools they need to understand and participate in every part of your event. For Hanukkah parties, this could include transliteration/translation for prayers and songs in Hebrew, Ladino, Yiddish, and Arabic. It also may include translating your materials to Spanish, Arabic or other commonly-spoken languages in your area and offering interpretation if possible.
5. Mind your bathrooms
If at all possible, make sure that you have gender-inclusive restrooms available. Having gender-inclusive restrooms is important to make bathrooms welcoming for trans and gender non-conforming people, as well as for families. If you need to, print out signs like these and convert your same-gender restrooms for a night.
Your bathroom is already stocked with toilet paper, right? Consider also stocking it with tampons and pads, which are necessary for people who menstruate. My synagogue does this and it makes me so happy every time I see the little basket! Now, if I ever see a synagogue with a little basket of condoms (internal and external) and lube, my heart will actually explode. Well… a Jew can dream.
6. Use humor to break the ice
Once everyone is settled, encourage guests to get to know each other by playing a fun ice-breaker. In a small crowd, you can go around in a circle and have every person say their name, gender pronouns, and favorite flavor of ice cream/apocalyptic survival skill.
If you really want to go all out, take a cue from my family at Passover and play an elaborate game of charades. Feel free to recruit a guest to lead the games!
7. When in doubt, ask!
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask your guests if there’s anything specific they need from you as the host. This might be as simple as inquiring about dietary restrictions/allergies/kashrut or involve helping a guest find a dedicated space for a health need or religious observance.
This might feel uncomfortable the first couple of times. Whenever I feel awkward about such exchanges, I remember that this shame is part and parcel of the stigma that makes our communities inaccessible. As someone who deals with chronic illness myself, I remember the first time someone asked me, Is there anything special I can do if you get a migraine at this event? It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders. Imagine how powerful it would be if we all thought these things through all of the time– it would dramatically decrease the burden on disabled people, trans and queer people, working families, etc.
Am I missing something? How do you make your events welcoming?