How to Celebrate Hanukkah in College

The Maccabeats make surprisingly good pre-game tunes, FYI.

Can I tell you something that makes me feel ancient? I was in college between the years of 2015 and 2019. Drake’s highly memeable “Hotline Bling” music video dropped during the fall of my freshman year. Donald Trump was elected President of the United States when I was a sophomore. As a junior, I was able to study abroad in Russia – something which I doubt is now possible or advisable due to the war in Ukraine. And the whirlwind romance of Pete Davidson/Ariana Grande (which, as we all know, spurred the invention of BDE) came to an abrupt end during my senior year.

All that to say:  As a 25-year-old, my college years simultaneously feel tangibly close and light-years away. So when it comes to how I celebrated Hanukkah during my college years, I can relate to how current Jewish college students must be feeling — the uncertainty of how to celebrate while being away from family and with many schools prohibiting open flames in dorms  — but I really don’t remember what I did to mitigate that.

Thankfully, I have an entire group of experts at my disposal: the 2022-2023 Hey Alma College Writing Fellows!

In the spirit of being a resource for other Jewish college students, I asked the fellows for any and all advice they could offer on how to celebrate the Festival of Lights while navigating classes and dorm restrictions. So without further ado, here’s your unofficial guide to celebrating Hanukkah in college:

If you want to light a menorah…

Make sure to check with your school’s office of residential life before Hanukkah, as most have prohibitions against open flames in dorms.

“An open flame in a dorm is really only an issue if the fire alarm catches it or if an RA/RD sees it,” rule-breaker Sheldon Skoboloff explained, while adding, “A lot of campuses do have exceptions for religious activities, though. If you’re still anxious about potentially breaking a rule in your dorm, try to see if anyone living off campus is hosting candle lightings at their place.”

However, while lighting a menorah against the wishes of the authorities is arguably fully in the spirit of Hanukkah, other fellows advised against it.

“I definitely don’t recommend lighting a menorah if the dorms have a no open flame rule…,” Miya Libman told me. “Last year, my dorm had one or two fire alarms on the first night of Hanukkah, and it definitely complicates the celebrations”

Or, just use an electric menorah! 

“I go home for winter break, but last year, Hanukkah was extra early, so unfortunately, all of it was while I was in school. My parents gave me an electric light-up menorah to bring with me, and I put it out in my apartment’s living room to be the centerpiece of the wide array of Christmas decorations,” Sophie Bravo said. She continued: “For a few nights, I would FaceTime my family so I could light the menorah with them.”

Or, go the DIY menorah route – which is a great way to troubleshoot if you can’t have an open flame or if you just don’t own a menorah! 

For Ella Schwartz, this meant a trip to Party City and placing an order from Amazon. “We hung up menorah decorations (stickers and pictures) on our window, since the flames are supposed to go there,” she explained. 

Miya Libman, who’s currently studying abroad in South Korea, has also considered building a menorah.

“Seoul doesn’t seem to have a Jewish community that I’ve been able to find, and it doesn’t seem practical to purchase a menorah just for my time here. I’ve thought about purchasing some little tea light candles and creating a makeshift menorah so I can still participate in candle lighting here.”

Or, look into menorah lightings via Hillel, your college’s Jewish student organizations or the local community!

If you want to say the prayers…

Hey Alma’s partner site My Jewish Learning has the text of all the Hanukkah blessings, with a printable PDF version and YouTube videos with the correct pronunciation! 

All of that is available here!

Plus, FaceTime is your friend!

“At home, we always FaceTime my grandmother to do the prayers together for Hanukkah, and last year we did a three-way FaceTime with me and my grandmother calling in,” Miya Libman recalled.

Or, once again, look into menorah lightings via Hillel, your college’s Jewish student organizations or the local community!

If you want to enjoy some Hanukkah treats…

Why not try making your own?

Either ask your family/friends to share recipes with you or try perusing our partner site The Nosher’s Hanukkah food archive! But, remember this important step from Sheldon if you don’t have access to a private kitchen: “If your campus has a community kitchen, reserve the space and invite other Jewish students to make latkes, sufganiyot, bunuelos, etc. with you!”

Even if the end product doesn’t turn out quite as tasty as you hoped, like when Ella Schwartz tried making latkes last year, the process itself may be all you need to get in the Hanukkah spirit.

“Making the latkes was so fun,” Ella relayed to me. “I invited some friends over, so we kind of made it a latke cooking competition.”

Or, get your hands on some Trader Joe’s Frozen Latkes. 

Out of all the tips the Hey Alma College Fellows offered, the most shared sentiment was a love for Trader Joe’s Frozen Latkes. According to Sabrina Abselet, “they have [her] whole heart,” and Sophie Bravo agreed that they are “for the win.”

Karly Jacklin elaborated, “Trader Joe’s Frozen Latkes have saved me in a pinch. Sometimes making them yourself is just not an option in the dorms, and the frozen ones have minimal cleanup.”

If you want to attend a Hanukkah party…

Look into events being hosted by your Hillel, Jewish student organization or local community, and get involved with the planning if you’re so inclined!

“Our Hillel ended up collabing with the vegan/vegetarian cooperative loft I live in, and we held and cooked for the party there,” Miri Verona shared. “Our Hillel basically cooks vegetarian anyways, so it wasn’t a huge stretch, and everyone I lived with was happy to share the yummy latkes, soup and everything else! Our loft also got to keep all of the leftovers and folks from Hillel helped do a lot of the cleanup.”

Or organize your own private party! 

As Sheldon so aptly pointed out, “Hillel is great for people who feel accepted by that community, but if it’s not the place for you, that’s okay. It can be equally as fun, if not more fun, to celebrate with some close friends in a more intimate setting.”

In terms of the party itself, there are plenty of fun Hanukkah activities to enjoy! For chiller vibes, maybe get together with friends to nosh on some fried treats and gelt while watching all the Hanukkah episodes TV has to offer? Or perhaps watch a Hanukkah movie, like “Menorah in the Middle” or Hallmark’s highly anticipated “Hanukkah on Rye.”

For a little bit of a rowdier party, feel free to refer to Hey Alma’s official rules for a dreidel drinking game. (Please drink responsibly!)

Whether you’re going for a lowkey hang or a rager, music is key! Like Miri, you may want to curate your own Hanukkah playlist. But for others, like Ella, Hanukkah is the time of year to put the Maccabeats on repeat — apparently they make for great Hanukkah pre-game tunes!

If you want to give/receive gifts…

A round of “Mysterious Maccabee” (a Hanukkah version of “Secret Santa”) is a perfect option for your friend group or Hillel/Jewish student organization!

If you’re in need of gift ideas, look no further than Hey Alma’s Hanukkah gift guide and our bonus, weird gift guide!

If you’re dealing with homesickness… 

Once again, FaceTime is your friend!

Even if you don’t have a Jewish community nearby, that doesn’t mean that you have to be alone for the holiday! Technology is pretty miraculous and can basically transport you anywhere in the world. Take it from Miya, who is basically an expert on the situation: “This will be my second Hanukkah away from home, and I definitely recommend FaceTiming or calling family to help with homesickness.”

Or, try sending out some Hanukkah cards!

“Sending Hanukkah cards to my friends who were also away from their families made me feel better,” Sophie explained.

And remember…

It’s totally valid to celebrate with your non-Jewish friends!

I actually really love celebrating Jewish holidays with my friends who aren’t Jewish and/or have had very little exposure to Jewish communities growing up,” Miya expressed. “I ended up having a latke dinner with all of my roommates last year, and those of us who are Jewish got to teach the prayers and the customs to our non-Jewish friends. I think everyone ended up having a really great time!”

Sheldon seconded that idea, adding, “Teaching other people about a holiday can make you remember why you wanted to celebrate it in the first place.”

Sabrina has also been educating her friends about Hanukkah, but not with just a surface-level explanation. “I have been teaching my friends the ‘true’ story of Hanukkah and how it was actually quite tragic and not just eight days of Christmas.”

For a resource on the Hanukkah story, check out this article from My Jewish Learning — but don’t forget to include the feminist Hanukkah heroine Judith in your retelling!

And even if you’re celebrating it differently than you normally would, Hanukkah is still a unique and beautiful holiday.

I’ll leave you with some sage thoughts from Sophie Bravo:

“I think it’s important to remember that though we are constantly surrounded by Christmas decorations, music and other reminders, part of the beauty of Hanukkah is that it’s just for us. Even if that means we can’t always be home or have other people to celebrate with, it’s beautiful that it is not entirely commercialized and that it is something special for Jewish people to have. Our holidays are still uniquely ours.”

Evelyn Frick

Evelyn Frick (she/they) is a writer and associate editor at Hey Alma. She graduated from Vassar College in 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. In her spare time, she's a comedian and contributor for Reductress and The Onion.

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