Five Jewish Communal Lessons from a Socially Distant Halloween

By Cantor Lauren Phillips Fogelman

In American culture, celebrating Halloween is a typically a well-oiled conglomeration of costumes, candy, and parties. But when a pandemic rages and forces us to avoid large gatherings and close contact with people beyond our own households or pods, we have to re-evaluate all that is known and familiar about these spooky festivities

In spite of this – speaking from my own experience at least – we managed to give our children a pretty stellar and memorable Halloween experience. Although Halloween itself is not typically recognized as a Jewish celebration, this reimagined Halloween gave me insight into several principles that can easily be applied to the world of Jewish communal engagement:

1.    Grassroots projects work.

A local mom friend of mine – who also happens to be one of our community’s PJ Library Connectors – took the initiative to organize a safe “Trunk or Treat” gathering in the parking lot of a local park. By simply connecting several families via social media, she was able arrange a fun-filled afternoon of friends, food, and freeze dance. It was a refreshing reminder of what life was like pre-COVID, especially since masks are de-rigueur at a Halloween celebration! Similarly, with some creativity and connectivity, we can adapt Jewish rituals to the challenges of our time.

2.    Neighborhood connections are important.

Prior to the pandemic, we hadn’t had a chance to meet the other people who live on our quiet cul-de-sac. During the first few weeks of lockdown, there wasn’t much to do other than to take laps around the block. As we walked, we took comfort in seeing the same familiar faces over and over again and started to develop a real semblance of community. On Halloween, one of the families had the brilliant suggestion of inviting each household on the block to set out bowls of candy next to their mailboxes. The kids were able to trick-or-treat around the block with no contact, and the adults enjoyed a socially distant block party featuring wine, pizza, and good conversation. Were it not for COVID, this probably would not have happened.

3.    Trick or treating can be reframed as an action of giving instead of getting.

We involved our older son in helping us select the candy and setting up the display we left by our mailbox. We explained to him that although it is fun to get candy, we could only do so if we are willing to share with others. We also committed to donating much of our loot to a local food bank. This model, incidentally, is based on the concepts of Shalach Manot (giving gifts to friends) and Matanot L’evyonim (giving gifts to the poor), which we typically observe during Purim.

4.    Don’t underestimate the power of decorations.

As we strolled around our neighborhood, we appreciated that many more houses than usual were decked out in spooky regalia. White-sheeted ghosts dangled from trees, a purple dragon loomed on the lawn, and a giant plush werewolf guarded a driveway at the end of the street. Some families even incorporated lighting! I appreciated the fact that Halloween decorations are fair game for everyone; whereas lights during the winter holiday season often divide us by faith traditions. The Jews have their menorahs; everyone else has Christmas lights. The Halloween lights and decorations provided pure entertainment and delight during this time of isolation. Many Jews look down on decorating for Chanukah as an appropriation of Christmas. However, the whole purpose of lighting the Chanukah menorah is to publicize the very miracles we are celebrating. Instead of staying in the dark this year, consider shining your own bright lights and celebrating the season. It may even spark – pun intended – meaningful conversations with you and your neighbors.

5.    Traditions are important, but it’s okay if they evolve with the time.

Although I enjoyed traditional door-to-door trick-or-treating while I was growing up, it was never a family affair. Instead, one parent would stay back to hand out candy at home while the other parent chaperoned our trick-or-treating outing. The reasoning for setting out bowls of candy instead of greeting people at the door was to minimize handoffs and contact with others. But the bonus was that our whole family was able to trick-or-treat together in our coordinated Toy Story-themed costumes. Having a designated time for setting out the candy enabled all of the children in our neighborhood to get plenty of treats. Similarly, in this time of social distance, we have to reframe Jewish observance to accommodate the unique needs of this time period.

COVID-19 has forced us to contemplate the finest details of our Jewish and secular observances. We need to make sure that everything we do is safe and practical during these unprecedented times. The task is daunting, but it has helped us breath new life into activities that we once took for granted. Let the thoughtfulness, creativity, and generosity of spirit that went into creating a fun-filled Halloween celebration in the midst of a pandemic carry over into the world of Jewish engagement. Now is the time to pave the way for the Jewish community we hope to have on the other side of this crisis. In order to do so, we need to maintain our connectivity and to continually adapt to the changing needs of our society.

Cantor Lauren Phillips Fogelman serves Temple Israel of Northern Westchester, a Reform congregation in Croton-on-Hudson, NY. She lives in Croton with her husband and two young sons.