Chanukah gets hip


On the night of Dec. 6, the group known as NuRoots is kicking off the Chanukah party to end all Chanukah parties: 35-plus events taking place over eight days all over the Los Angeles region, from Venice to downtown to Woodland Hills. 

And while there will be latkes and candle lighting — the name of the event, after all, is Infinite Light — the festivities will bear little resemblance to your bubbe’s celebration. Instead, think dinner by the L.A. River, a holiday-themed alternative comedy performance, an evening of yoga to nourish participants’ inner light and even a glow-themed party at a Pico Boulevard tavern where, according to the Infinite Light website (infinitelight.la), “You might leave with fluorescent body paint.”

This is by far the most ambitious event ever hosted by NuRoots, which focuses on engaging young adults in their 20s and 30s and is part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles — the hippest part, you might say. In the past, NuRoots has offered up smaller, more intimate events, such as a meditation workshop for the Jewish New Year. But Federation President and CEO Jay Sanderson thought it was time for the 2-year-old program to do something big, according to Scott Minkow, vice president for NuRoots Grants and Partnerships at Federation.

A scene from a Rosh Hashanah dinner held in the courtyard of a NuRoots fellow’s apartment complex in West Hollywood. NuRoots is expanding its reach with “Infinite Light.”

“Jay’s concept was we have dozens of organizations that we bring together for a monthly NextGen Engagement Initiative breakfast, a network of over 70 organizations and individuals who work with young adults,” Minkow said. “We have this successful fellowship program. What could we do that is NuRoots flavored?”

Over the summer, Sanderson, Minkow and half a dozen or so of NuRoots’ core partners, including representatives from the spiritual communities IKAR and Open Temple, sat down to brainstorm what that might be. They talked about doing something for Sukkot, but Chanukah bought them a bit more time and, ultimately, made more sense. 

“Young adults are looking for opportunities to get out and do something fun during the holidays,” Minkow said. “Every young-adult group around town does their own Chanukah event. What if we gave an incentive [to participating organizations] and curated a festival that highlighted all the opportunities around town? What if we shine a spotlight? What does that spotlight look like? It’s about light, miracles, wonder. We decided to title it Infinite Light.” 

In fact, the word Chanukah doesn’t even appear on the Infinite Light home page. Nor is it on the cover of the 5,000 brochures that have been distributed in synagogues, yoga studios, coffee houses and juice bars. This was a deliberate decision to make the event more universal and to appeal to an audience that wants to “create their own Jewish experience … and chart their own course,” Minkow said, adding that “we also know that people bring their friends who are not Jewish.”  

Once the group decided on the Infinite Light name, the NuRoots leaders put out an appeal to their partners. They offered micro-grants of up to $2,000 to organizations whose events made the cut to offset the costs of hosting the events. Minkow had figured they’d have 15, maybe 18 events in the end. But the response was tremendous, with organizations submitting event ideas well into November. 

Some of the events on the Infinite Light calendar are carryovers from past years. For example, Temple Beth Am’s latkes and vodka potluck is an annual event. And last year, the Louis & Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU) joined forces with Worthy of Love, which hosts blowout monthly group birthday parties for the youth residents at Union Rescue Mission downtown, to throw a Chanukah bash. 

According to Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of the Miller Program at AJU, partnering with Infinite Light for this year’s Chanukah party gave them “the chance to think bigger and more creatively,” as well as “broadcast to a broader audience.” This is exactly what NuRoots intended.

“The idea behind putting this all under one umbrella … is that every event will rise in profile because of the sheer mass of people looking at it. Everyone will get more attention,” Minkow said. 

“We have inspired more than 15 events to take place that wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” he said. These include a Tunisian-style Shabbat dinner hosted by YALA (Young Adults of Los Angeles) and Petit Takett; a fashion show starring regular folks modeling outfits they have purchased at the National Council of Jewish Women thrift stores; and a miracles-themed “Kinda-Jewy Holiday Show” courtesy of Mortified, which regularly hosts riotous storytelling performances in which adults share their very real and very embarrassing diary entries, love letters and poems from childhood.

Infinite Light’s official launch event on the first night of Chanukah, Dec. 6, at Sambar in Culver City, is organized by Dinating, which does ticketed dinners at local foodie favorite eateries and donates a portion of funds. Dinating usually supports SOVA, but on this night, 100 percent of the $50-per-person cover will go to “Federation programs that support the most vulnerable and needy,” Minkow said. The menu, by Sambar chef-owner Akasha Richmond, is a mash-up of Indian and Jewish dishes and includes vegetable pakoras (a fried snack), sweet potato and butternut squash latkes, and Baghdadi Jewish biryani (Basmati rice with vegetables, golden raisins and pistachios). There will also be specialty cocktails — some inspired by chocolate gelt and others made with
etrog liqueur.

Many of the events, including two in conjunction with PJ Library and aimed at families, are free. Some cost between $10 and $20. NuRoots is also offering an all-inclusive festival pass for $100 per person. But Minkow expects most attendees to go the à la carte route. All events require an RSVP.

Not surprisingly, given the target audience for the bulk of Infinite Light events, social media have played a big part in getting the word out. “So excited for this super RAD Shabbat Dinner,” reads the Facebook page for the Tunisian feast.

“We’re asking all our partners to participate,” Minkow said. “Their agreement gives them a social media guide. You should be tagging, Instagramming, linking. And one of our partners, Eastside Jews, is running an Instagram scavenger hunt.”

Minkow said the barometer of success for Infinite Light will be organizations seeing new faces at its events — “folks who are not their core constituency.” Also: “Are people experimenting and trying new things? Some people will be able to tell via social media. Are people tagging? What are [attendee] numbers for these events? And, really, do our partner organizations feel positive about the experience? Are we providing a range of options for people to experience Chanukah? And I think we already are giving new attention to a holiday that can often be about lighting a candle and eating a latke, showing people there are a variety of ways to celebrate, that L.A is diverse. 

“We want it to be a positive experience for everybody. Just thinking about the potential to ignite and partner with a variety of organizations gives us real excitement.”

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