In December, Jewish Life at Duke invited the Duke community to attend a series of eight virtual candle lightings, every night of Hanukkah. Our goal was to provide a way for students, staff, faculty, alumni, parents, and friends to connect and celebrate Hanukkah with their fellow Blue Devils. In a typical year, the Jewish Student Union celebrates Hanukkah with a party known as “Latkapalooza”, complete with food, music, games, a sweater contest, a photo booth, and more. This year, moving our Hanukkah celebrations to a virtual format provided the unique opportunity to include those who aren’t typically on campus.

Each night featured a special Duke guest who shared a reflection around the theme of Hanukkah. We were thrilled to welcome Jon Scheyer, Duke Men’s Basketball Associate Head Coach; young alumni Rachel Berlowe Binder ’19, Kenny Green ’20, Sam Honig ’18, and Raquel Levy ’18; Provost Sally Kornbluth; Professor Dan Ariely; Vice President and Vice Provost Mary Pat McMahon; President Price; and the Jewish Student Union who hosted a virtual edition of Latkapalooza.

Each candle lighting event took place from 6:00pm-6:15pm; the short duration made it easy for attendees to commit to logging on to Zoom. We utilized the spotlight feature on Zoom to highlight three screens: our host Rabbi Elana Friedman, Duke University Campus Rabbi and Jewish Chaplain, our special guest, and a screen we called the “JLD Menorah Cam” which displayed a close-up of Rabbi Elana’s chanukiyah (Hanukkah menorah). Many of the guests shared their own menorahs, but there was no expectation for our non-Jewish guests to bring or light their own menorahs. One guest, however, turned out to have Jewish relatives who shared their family menorah with her for that evening, which was a lovely and heartwarming moment.

Following the ritual candle lighting and Hanukkah blessings, Rabbi Elana invited each guest to share some words of reflection around the Hanukkah theme of miracles and finding light in the darkness. She then asked our guests some fun this-or-that questions about their preferences. Latkes (potato pancakes) or sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts)? For latke toppings: applesauce or sour cream? Guests also were encouraged to describe a memorable gift they’ve given or received. Professor Dan Ariely shared some fascinating insights on gift giving from a behavioral economics perspective.

The Latkapalooza evening was geared more toward the student population. This was a student-hosted, student-led event and they designed fun Hanukkah-themed Zoom backgrounds.  In addition to the traditional candle lighting, they played music and hosted a virtual sweater contest and dreidel games.

Recordings can be viewed here.

What advice do you have for colleagues planning a similar event?         

Invest in custom and consistent branding: We designed a suite of marketing collateral using Canva to share across multiple communications channels. We created a short, easy-to-remember link through TinyURL that linked to the Zoom meeting ID, so it was easy for attendees to remember and connect without needing to access a calendar invitation or emailed link. We know from our work with students that a required RSVP is sometimes a barrier to entry, and for this first-time virtual event, we prioritized ease of access. Given the high turnout we had, were we to do this again, we would reconsider a more formal Zoom registration process.

Publicize widely: We utilized multiple channels including the Duke Events Calendar, Duke Today, Working@Duke, social media, email newsletters, social media, and our website. We also encouraged our colleagues in Alumni Affairs and Duke Development to share with their constituents.

Expect the inevitable: Always be sure to have a backup plan for tech issues. One night, we had internet connectivity issues, and another staff member was able to take over while the other scrambled to get back online. I think those minutes always feel longer to the organizers than they do to the participants! So, we try hard to remember that and not get down over a few tech or audio issues.

What did you learn from planning this virtual event?

Over the eight nights of Hanukkah, we were joined by over 300 alumni, parents, students, faculty, and staff from across the country. Alumni and parents who wouldn’t typically be on campus during Hanukkah were so pleased to be able to attend this Duke celebration virtually.  We have learned that there is a great desire among our community to engage with special Duke guests and experience what Jewish Life is like for today’s Duke students.

We had a great time partnering with administrators, faculty, staff, and alumni who served as our special guests and we are inspired to continue these collaborations. We would love to continue to provide some version of virtual engagement even once we return to face-to-face gatherings.

In addition to our eight special guests, we are so grateful to all involved whose work and enthusiasm made these events so successful:

Rabbi Elana Friedman; Joyce Gordon, Director for Jewish Life at Duke; Lena Wegner, Assistant Director for External Relations; Reuven Remez, Israel Fellow; Sydney Albert, Jewish Life at Duke student assistant; Sarah Jacobs, Jewish Student Union president, and the special guests listed above.

Virtually yours,

Aviv Sheetrit

Associate Director, External Relations

Jewish Life at Duke

Mary Pat McMahon, Student Affairs Vice Provost and Vice President       Dan Ariely, Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics 

Kathy Wright, Editor