Holiday Gatherings Back On This Year

Cara Scharf, center, celebrates Chanukah with her family before the pandemic. (Courtesy of the Scharf family)

After a year of sacrificing in-person holiday parties because of the pandemic, Jewish Philadelphians are getting together again in 2021.

Thanksgiving is on Nov. 25, and Chanukah starts just three nights later. So with both fast approaching, local Jews have already planned their holiday season parties.

Joyce Heisen, who lives in the suburbs, said that, just like last year, she trusts the guidance: COVID vaccines work, so it’s OK to gather again. Heisen is getting her booster shot and, since almost 70% of Americans have received at least one jab, she feels comfortable gathering again.

“I’m just not going to keep postponing things,” Heisen said.

The suburban resident is part of a group of widows who call themselves “The Good Grief Goddesses.” They met in a virtual bereavement group through Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks during the pandemic and became fast friends.

Lately, they’ve been gathering in person once a month for activities like lunches and visiting a scarecrow exhibit in October. On Dec. 13, the Goddesses are having a Chanukah potluck featuring brisket, kugel and salmon, among other delicacies.

“We’ve all been vaccinated, and we think enough is enough,” Heisen said. “We’re not young.”

Later in December, Heisen and her daughter will fly to Los Angeles to visit her son and his family. When Heisen’s husband was alive, the family traditionally ate prime rib on Christmas Day, his birthday.

Now, they are bringing back the tradition for the first time since 2019. Peter Heisen died in February 2020.

“We can’t eradicate the flu. We can’t eradicate colds,” Heisen said. “How can we eradicate COVID? We can’t.”

Heisen is not the only Jewish local willing to travel for a holiday gathering.

Cara Scharf of Philadelphia is planning on going to New Hampshire and Connecticut for Thanksgiving and Christmas, respectively, with her husband’s family.

The New Hampshire party will include about eight people staying together in an Airbnb. The Connecticut gathering will welcome 11-12 guests.

Scharf and her husband also are getting together with Scharf’s parents a couple of times to light Chanukah candles.

Last year for Thanksgiving, they met with her parents for a small get-together. But in December, as cases increased, they just lit Chanukah candles over Zoom.

This year will be more fun, Scharf said.

“There’s a sense of togetherness and joy around these holidays,” she said. “It’s sad when you’re just doing it over Zoom.”

Scharf added that she trusts her family members and that everyone eligible to be vaccinated is.

“We feel pretty comfortable,” she said.

Charles Schnur of Center City is having a family member come to him: his mother-in-law. She lives in Stamford, Connecticut, but wants to spend Thanksgiving and Chanukah with her 5-month-old grandson.

She plans on staying with the Schnurs for “awhile,” Charles Schnur said.

“We’ll get to celebrate with her. She’ll get to celebrate with her grandson,” he added. “That’s nice.”

The Good Grief Goddesses, a group of Jewish widows in the Philly area, are planning on getting together for a holiday meal on Dec. 13. (Courtesy of Joyce Heisen)

Another Jewish Philadelphian, Bryan Cohen, is not planning on traveling or having anyone come to him. But he is planning on resuming a public tradition with his father, brother and his brother’s fiancee.

Before 2020, the Cohens would go out for Thanksgiving dinner in the city. But last year, they just got together virtually.

In 2021, though, the Cohens want to go to the Capital Grille or another steakhouse. They will probably gather for Chanukah candle lightings, too, Cohen said.

“Restrictions are down,” he added. “We’d like to get together.”

Several Jewish Philadelphians mentioned vaccinations as the reason they feel comfortable seeing family members again. For some, it’s not exactly a requirement; for other families, though, it very much is.

Peter Gaskill of Bala Cynwyd usually celebrates Thanksgiving in Sharon, Massachusetts, where his wife’s brother and sister-in-law live. The dinner was canceled in 2020 but is back on this year under one condition.

All guests who have been eligible for vaccinations must be vaccinated and tested before the event. And the tests must be negative for COVID.

Even kids 11 and under, who became eligible for Pfizer vaccines in October, will have gotten their first shots by the time the family sits down for turkey.

“Just because you’re vaccinated doesn’t mean you can’t get COVID,” Gaskill said.

At the same time, he’s not worried about the indoor dinner.

“Everyone’s vaxxed, so we’re feeling safe,” Gaskill said.

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