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Drive-thru Hanukkah event brings ’holiday light and joy’ to Petaluma

To help

The Chabad Jewish Center of Petaluma is accepting donations to help cover costs, including the cost of hosting its annual Hanukkah celebration. For more information about the organization, or to donate, go to jewishpetaluma.com/donate or call 707-559-8585.

Just inside the entrance to the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds a young boy dressed as a human dreidel spun wildly, keeping in character while welcoming visitors Sunday to Chabad Jewish Center of Petaluma’s Hanukkah celebration.

More than two months in the making, the center’s drive-through version of the annual celebration was larger and better attended than ever. But it was also uniquely 2020, with all attendees quarantined to their cars and performers fully masked to prevent the spread of COVID-19 amid a wintertime virus surge throughout much of the country.

Sunday’s event, said Rabbi Dovid Bush, was a chance for joy amid a year of unprecedented sadness.

“I think Rabbi Dovid is the most creative person — I absolutely love it,” said Marsha Harris, who attended the evening event with her husband, Ron Harris. “He made a very hard time into something festive. It’s just wonderful. It really makes you feel great.”

The cars, with headlights reflected at dusk in freshly filled puddles, split into two lines to make room for a fleet of entertainment along a 300-yard stretch of Gnoss Concourse, the road within the fairgrounds.

About 600 residents packed into vehicles for the event, doubling the attendance last year at Hanukkah at the River, the traditional location since 2015.

“I think that’s a sign of just how appreciated this sort of offering is for the community at a time like this, when everything is sort of up in the air,” said Bush, who donned a Judah Maccabee costume during the event, a callback to the famed warrior.

Bush cobbled together the innovative celebration starting in late September, after realizing the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t getting any better. He reached out to officials with the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds, where the Chabad Jewish Center hosted Camp Aleph Petaluma, and the two sides were quickly able to finalize the reservation.

“As soon as we had this idea, we reached out to them, and they said, ‘Yes, absolutely,’” Bush said. “They were thrilled to be able to host the Hanukkah celebration.”

The larger venue and distinct set up necessitated a bigger program. Where Bush and company had sprung for one performer to cap previous celebrations, this year’s event featured five. And, anticipating, much higher turnout, the center spent more on the dreidel-shaped goody boxes filled with latkes and doughnuts and chocolate gelt.

“Hanukkah at the River is our largest event of the year. We spend accordingly,” said Bush, whose center maintains contact with a growing list of more than 400 Jewish families. “This event, in this format, it’s at least twice as expensive for us.

“The event is still not yet covered, but we’re confident that it’s the right investment for the community.”

Despite a drizzly start to the day, Bush on Sunday morning was optimistic that the event at the new location would go on as scheduled. It had to.

Beneath clearing skies, the chill of December in the air, life-size bubbles crafted by a stilt-walker welcoming visitors provided a touch of whimsy. A magician, a juggler and a balloon twisting expert added to the carnival atmosphere.

The Harrises, Petaluma residents for 50 years, showed off a menorah made from balloons at the end of the event.

“Isn’t it amazing?” Marsha Harris asked, adding that the celebration was the “most unique” she’d ever attended.

The new location, it turned out, is just the latest innovation from Bush, who last year introduced a massive, spinning dreidel that, upon closer inspection, was a cement mixing truck. It was present, too.

The event was free, and Bush said the hope was to spread “holiday light and joy to as many as possible.”

“I think it’s really resonating with the community, which makes it all the more worthwhile to us to see that actual feedback in terms of attendance,” Bush said before the event.

Bush, much like everyone else, had no idea the scourge of coronavirus would impact events throughout 2020, including Hanukkah. He’s hopeful, as are most, for a brighter 2021. But he’s also reflective, calling the year of the pandemic a chance to re-explore value, re-evaluate what’s important.

“We have to re-imagine everything,” he said.

There was little question for Bush that this year’s Hanukkah celebration – a celebration of light over dark – would go on despite the pallor cast by COVID-19.

“The one thing we wanted to ensure as Hanukkah approached was that 2020 would not hamper the celebration,” Bush said. “It wouldn’t bring us down, but rather we would use it as a launching pad to do something bigger and greater.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

To help

The Chabad Jewish Center of Petaluma is accepting donations to help cover costs, including the cost of hosting its annual Hanukkah celebration. For more information about the organization, or to donate, go to jewishpetaluma.com/donate or call 707-559-8585.

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