December: Annual Menorah Lighting

This month marks the 40th anniversary of The University of Texas at Austin’s Annual Menorah Lighting, sponsored by The University of Texas Chabad Student Center, in celebration of the Jewish Holiday of Hanukkah.[1] The ceremony will occur on the first night of Hanukkah, which falls on December 18 this year, with the holiday continuing through December 26. Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, is an eight-day celebration dating back to the second century BCE. It commemorates the Jewish recovery of Jerusalem, a moment marked by the victory of Judah the Maccabee’s army over the Syrian-Greeks who had taken over the city and sought to convert the Jewish people residing there to Greek religious beliefs. According to tradition, the army was said to have reclaimed and rededicated Jerusalem’s Second Temple with the lighting of a Menorah, a seven-armed candelabra. However, as the story goes, while the Maccabees only had one container of pure olive oil available to fuel the lamp—an amount that was normally just enough for one day’s worth of light—their oil lasted for eight full days. Hanukkah is now celebrated in commemoration of this miraculous event. Today, menorahs are lit over a period of eight days, with one additional candle being set alight every night over the course of the holiday until all eight candles plus the “shamash” (candle lighter) are burning bright. In recognition of the miracle of the Maccabees, Hanukkah is celebrated in Jewish homes and gatherings through the lighting of the holiday menorahs as well as by giving gifts, playing games such as dreidel, singing, and consuming traditional foods usually made with or featuring oil, such as fried potato pancakes called latkes and jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot.[2]

Picture of a Jewish Catacomb in Rome from the 3rd Century, 2000. Classics Collection, UT Digital Archive Services.

Jewish students have attended The University of Texas at Austin since at least the 1890s.[3] In 1903, on the University’s twentieth anniversary, 21 UT students identified as Jewish.[4] In 1907, the first UT Jewish student organization was created by students in partnership with Temple Beth Israel Austin. In 1911, with help from new Austinite Rabbi David Rosenbaum and several Jewish faculty members, the organization was named the UT Menorah Society and counted 40 of the 50 Jewish students then at the university as members.[5] In 1945, an Austin American-Statesman article noted that “special exhibits of Jewish literature, music and personalities have been placed in the University of Texas Main building, in commemoration of the festival of Chanuko (Dedication Days).”[6] Despite this early exhibition of the holiday, Hanukkah was not formally celebrated with a UT-sponsored Menorah lighting until 1982.

Picture of members of UT Chabad celebrating the lighting of the Menorah at the university, 2018. Photo credit to Rabbi Zev Johnson and UT Chabad Center.

Mainstream Christian holidays such as Christmas, on the other hand, have been recognized and celebrated at UT in many different and public ways since the University’s inception.[7] Indeed, so ubiquitous was the recognition of Christmas as the dominant holiday of the month of December that the Texas Exes felt comfortable hosting what they called an “International Christmas Party” in the 1970s, advertising it in their weekly memo as targeted for “those foreign students…Muslim and Jew, Buddhist and Hindu, Catholic and Protestant who did not observe this greatest of all Christian Holidays.”[8]

In marked contrast, UT’s Jewish students had to advocate for the university to recognize Jewish traditions on campus and sometimes independently created alternative spaces in which to practice Jewish customs when UT did not meet their community’s needs. Jewish students in the 1970s and 1980s wrote to local publications such as the Daily Texan and Austin American-Statesman to express their disappointment in UT’s lack of recognition of Hannukah. In 1977, the Austin American-Statesman published an article highlighting the difficulty that students had in celebrating a fully kosher Hanukkah at UT due to the lack of kosher meal options in and around campus. The article praises the (at the time) new Kosher Co-op, B’nai Chelm (1975), which had become a place of refuge for students trying to celebrate Hanukkah, the Sabbath, and other Jewish holidays—significant dates that the article noted were “impossible” to properly celebrate “in a dorm.”[9]

Over the past few decades, the numbers of Jewish students involved in Jewish organizations and programing at UT has risen along with the population of Jews on campus. This has been the case for Texas Hillel, which, since its founding in 1927, has worked with the university to make UT more inclusive for Jewish students. According to Texas Hillel, Jewish students made up 7% of UT’s student population in 2020.[10] UT’s first Jewish president, Gregory Fenves, served in the role from 2015-2020. In 2016, Fenves, now President of Emory University in Georgia, was the “first UT president to publicly light a menorah on the [UT] campus.”[11]

Picture of former UT President Gregory Fenves attending the UT Menorah Lighting, 2015. Photo credit to Rabbi Zev Johnson and UT Chabad Center.

While UT’s Jewish students have succeeded in gaining the kind of access and acknowledgement on campus that might have been difficult to imagine half a century ago, antisemitism remains a threat to Jewish Longhorns and the larger Austin Jewish community. In recent years, Austin’s Jewish population has faced an increasing number of antisemitic attacks,[12] which have understandably left Jewish students and members of the UT community concerned about their own safety on campus.[13] At this time of year, especially, Jewish students draw strength from festival traditions such as Hanukkah to recognize their long history of fighting for the rights of the oppressed. As UT’s Humanities Institute Fellow Rabbi Neil Blumofe reminds us, “Hanukkah remains an important festival season to remind the Jewish people of the centrality of Jewish identity, traditions, and the importance of hope and spiritual activism in challenging times.”[14]

Acknowledgment: Thank you to Dr. Suzanne Seriff and her Research Assistants, Jenya Green and Daniel Chayet, for also contributing to this piece.


[1] “Jewish UT President Joins Public Menorah-Lighting.” Accessed December 1, 2022. https://jhvonline.com/jewish-ut-president-joins-public-menorahlighting-p20440-280.htm.

[2] “What Is Hanukkah? – Info You Need about Chanukah.” Accessed November 28, 2022. https://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/102911/jewish/What-Is-Hanukkah.htm.

[3] “The University of Texas, Interesting Notes as to Enrollment and Other Items.” Austin American-Statesman, 1898, p. 3. Accessed November 28, 2022.

[4] Benedict, Harry Yandell. A Source Book Relating to the History of the University of Texas: Legislative, Legal, Bibliographical, and Statistical. University of Texas Bulletin, No. 1757: Oct. 10, 1917. Austin, Tex.: The University, 1917. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006586423.

[5] Intercollegiate Menorah association. The Menorah Movement of the Study and Advancement of Jewish Culture and Ideals: History, Purposes, Activities. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Intercollegiate Menorah Association, 1914. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001453450.

[6] UT Exhibits Jewish Literature and Music. The Austin American-Statesman (1914-1973); Dec 2, 1945; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Austin American-Statesman, pg. 19. Accessed November 30, 2022.

[7] Austin, The University of Texas at. To the Students- Chairman’s Letter About Christmas Holidays. University of Texas at Austin, 1887. https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/24679.

[8] Texas Ex-Student Association. “Texas Exes Monday Memo.” Austin, Texas, 1970. Accessed November 28, 2022.

[9] Cortese, Tracy. “Kosher Hanukkah Is Hard to Attain.” Austin American-Statesman, 1977, pp. B1–B2. Accessed November 29, 2022.

[10] Steinhardt, Leni. “Jewish UT-Austin Students Share Feelings on Their Safety after Recent Anti-Semitic Incidents.” The Daily Texan (blog). Accessed November 23, 2022. https://thedailytexan.com/2020/11/25/jewish-ut-austin-students-share-feelings-on-their-safety-after-recent-anti-semitic/.

[11] “Jewish UT President Joins Public Menorah-Lighting.” Accessed November 28, 2022. https://jhvonline.com/jewish-ut-president-joins-public-menorahlighting-p20440-280.htm.

[12] KXAN Austin. “Call out Hate: Travis County Asking for Community’s Help after Several Antisemitic Acts in Austin,” November 2, 2021. https://www.kxan.com/news/local/travis-county/call-out-hate-travis-county-asking-for-communitys-help-after-several-antisemitic-acts-in-austin/.

[13] Steinhardt, Leni. “Jewish UT-Austin Students Share Feelings on Their Safety after Recent Anti-Semitic Incidents.” The Daily Texan (blog). Accessed November 29, 2022. https://thedailytexan.com/2020/11/25/jewish-ut-austin-students-share-feelings-on-their-safety-after-recent-anti-semitic/.

[14] Rabbi Blumofe, Email Correspondence with Dr. Suzanne Seriff, The University of Texas at Austin. Accessed November 29, 2022.