I didn’t hear them knock at first. When I finally did, it was too late.
I wasn’t expecting them. I had grown accustomed to full privacy since my school stopped doing “wellness checks” in our dorms due to COVID-19. During a wellness check, resident advisors (RAs) enter your dormitory with no prior warning to search for alcohol, drugs or other hazardous items.
My RAs stormed in, peering in my fridge and around my room for anything the college deems questionable. I was relaxed, even browsing my phone as they did it— I believed my place was clean, but I was wrong.
“I’m going to have to take these,” one of them said, holding my Shabbat candles in her hands.
My two precious candles. Different shades of pink, one stubbier than the other, resting in my beautifully hand-painted wooden candlesticks. I looked at her, puzzled, and even almost laughed before I remembered that my college forbids them; open flames are a fire hazard.
I snapped into defense mode at once and asked for a religious exemption. She wouldn’t seriously kidnap my candles on Erev Shabbat, would she?
My defense fell flat. She told me I could take it up with her supervisor, and that was the end of it. The candles disappeared with her and, almost as a physical reflex, I began to sob. Even in my condition, I still managed to spring into emergency email mode and compose my grievance.
This wasn’t my first clash with residence authority. During my freshman year, my room became infested with termites. The college suggested that I spray vinegar and orange oil around my room (because that would make for a lovely smell, of course.) From this previous experience I recalled that they’d sooner opt for a quick fix, usually a burden that the student bears, than take action themselves.
I anticipated this rigidity from the start: Number one, I wrote, I’m not going to pray outside, because Shabbat is to be practiced inside the home. Number two, I’m not going to use electric candles, because, well, it just doesn’t do it for me.
“Lighting candles is the most important part of Sabbath,” I wrote to the resident supervisor. “And while I don’t expect fire codes to accommodate that, I can’t do without them.”
The stream of tears continued as I wrote. I would never have expected myself to get so emotional over my candles, but only once they were sequestered did I realize that they’re the central balance point of my living space. They stand symmetrically in my arched window, and even on days when I don’t light them, they illuminate the room in anticipation of the coming Friday. My room suddenly felt barren and the walls seemed grayer than before.
In the wake of what happened, I began to wonder why I felt so terrorized. I knew the RA was just doing her job, but she threw herself into my room like a bloodhound with heat vision — as if she already knew what she was looking for. It felt like a raid, like they had been tipped off that I was hiding contraband in my room.
Then it clicked: as a Sephardic Jew whose ancestors were kicked out of Spain, this felt all too similar to a period of our history I usually prefer not to think about.
I recalled a book I read in March: “Hidden Heritage: The Legacy of the Crypto-Jews” by Janet L. Jacobs. A Crypto-Jew was any European Jew forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition. Although many conversos converted in the eyes of the church, they continued practicing their faith in hidden ways, such as making “fake” sausage out of chicken to avoid suspicion and clandestinely praying over Shabbat candles in closets.
Once the authorities caught wind of this, Jacobs narrates, they drafted the Edicts of Grace (Edictos de gracia), documents that listed a wide array of “Judaizing” activities that citizens were expected to report to combat heresy. If people noticed that their neighbors or friends placed clean linen on their tables on Fridays, soaked meat in water to remove the blood, or fasted on the Fast of Queen Esther, they were to expose the heretics at once. Even if friendships would cause them to potentially hesitate, they were encouraged to do so for the sake of their own souls and salvation. It effectively deputized citizens out of fear in one of the most tragic convergences of church and state to date.
I don’t intend to equate my confiscated candles to their case. I was candle-less, but still alive; that’s more than can be said for 15th- and 16th-century Crypto-Jews, who, upon being found out, often met the fates of exile or execution. However, something about the confiscation of spiritual Judaica bore a resemblance to that period of Sephardic persecution: an invasion of space, an invasion of faith.
Although I’m Sephardic, I didn’t grow up practicing Judaism. Sometime after immigrating to the U.S., my family was Christianized through intermarriage, so I was raised in a Pentecostal household. What’s helped me most in my conversion and return to my roots has been Judaism’s tangible traditions: kneading and cutting challah, the seder plate at Pesach, and lighting my candles as a commandment from Hashem. Given my heritage and circumstances, I decided that it would be very un-Sephardic of me to give up my traditions after just one obstacle.
The following morning, I grew curious. Surely this couldn’t be the first time a Jew on a campus setting has had their candles swiped, could it? Upon researching, I found out that my experience was in no way unique. In 2005, resident advisors at Central Michigan University confiscated a Jewish student’s candles in the middle of Chanukah. Ironically, the school allowed students to smoke cigarettes, cigars and pipe tobacco in these dorms.
In a 1999 opinion piece from “The Harvard Crimson,” student Sarah J. Ramer calls out the hypocrisy of Harvard’s fire policies, which accommodated Christmas lights but prohibited menorahs in student dorm rooms, demonstrating an unfair regulation against Jewish students. According to Ramer, Christmas lights can often be the source of disastrous fires as well.
“If Harvard is so concerned about fires, then both menorahs and Christmas trees should be banned from individual rooms,” she wrote.
It seems that my research couldn’t have been timed better. Just as I read this line, I received an email notification from the RA supervisor I had contacted. I opened it excitedly, but that excitement quickly turned to disappointment when I realized what it was: a counter-proposal. She reiterated that candles are forbidden in residence halls, but because mine were for religious purposes, they were willing to make an exception — for an evening.
“You may pick up your candles 30 minutes prior to needing them and return them to the Commons when you are finished with prayer,” she wrote.
My face froze in a half-offended, half-confused expression. Were they seriously expecting me to rent my stolen property from them every Friday?
Let me finish reading before I react, I thought to myself. Maybe it gets better.
She mentioned further on that they would be working towards a “more permanent solution” with my school’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion — the two offices would hold a private meeting and inform me of the outcome before the next Friday.
Nope, not better. I became even more confused. I wasn’t even invited to the meeting to speak on why it’s important for me to have them; the Office of Diversity and Inclusion would speak for me. My candles and I were on trial, and I couldn’t even plead our case. How inclusive is that, really?
Although I understood that this might not be the permanent solution they sought, I decided to play their game for the time being. I picked up my candles for Shabbat and returned them the following morning. The only thing left to do was wait.
Unsurprisingly, I found this impossible.
I thought of all the Jewish students I had read about who had been through the same experience. I thought about all the future Jewish students who would have their candles and menorahs stolen away, too.
Instead of tapping my foot, waiting around for a verdict, I decided it was time to correct the mistake and set a precedent — not just in my case, but for Jewish college students everywhere.
Just as I had done a week before, I sat down at my computer and brandished the only defense I had: my email. I told them that I couldn’t settle for the pick-up/drop-off arrangement that they had proposed because it felt too much like the college “allowing” me to practice, or dictating the way I practice.
“The only intermediaries that should exist between a Jew and their faith is their rabbi,” I said.
I attached the research that I had found days before and suggested it as reading material for all who would attend the deciding meeting. I pointed out that, like Central Michigan University and Harvard, our own school had hypocritical and self-contradictory fire policies.
“I don’t see these regulations being so strictly held for other flammable objects, such as Christmas lights,” I said. “And if you don’t allow ‘open flames of any kind’, why are there birthday candles for sale at the school market?”
Above all, I mentioned that I am completely safe when I light my candles, always keeping water nearby and not leaving flames unsupervised.
“I’m responsible, and lighting those candles is something I look forward to every week because they’re a commandment from God,” I concluded.
If this doesn’t get through to them, then nothing will, I thought to myself. Still, I hoped that I had finally put the issue to bed, and put myself to bed as well.
The news came at 8:52 the next morning: In the meeting, they opted to create a form to be completed by anyone wishing to use flammable materials as a part of prayer, ritual, holiday, or other spiritual use. She invited me to come pick up my candles and told me that I wouldn’t have to return them. Basically, as long as it was on file that I had them, they wouldn’t bother me about it anymore — and that was fine with me.
As someone who grew up with 10 siblings, I’m sure that half of my satisfaction came from winning in general. But this win was different from all the others. There are little moments now and then where my commitment to Judaism pays off, and this was one of them. After my isolated incident, I had effectively changed school policy for myself and all practicing Jews to come.
Upon further reflection, I realized that this is a responsibility that all Jews should bear: Our forebears were persecuted several times throughout history for practicing openly, so why should we surrender our traditions with no fight? And as a Sephardi, the precedent was especially crucial; I felt like I had, in some small way, rectified some of the wrongs historically committed against us. I could never make up for all of them, but hey, it was a start.
Hanukkah is finally upon us, and I’m using a real menorah. Those eight nights wouldn’t exist in Jewish tradition without the light that the candles represent. If I’ve ever taken them for granted before, I certainly don’t this year.