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Hanukkah at home

Photo: Maxi enjoys scootering outside his home

Having started secondary school a few months before this year’s pandemic changed everything, 12-year-old Maxi is used to adapting to change.

“It took a while for Maxi to settle in at secondary school,” mum Gisela explains. “Being in a different classroom for each lesson and making sure his radio aid was passed around his teachers posed challenges.”

No sooner had Maxi, who is moderately deaf, become used to the bigger school, than online learning replaced face-to-face lessons.

Online schooling had its benefits for Maxi, who wears two hearing aids in his favourite colour of green. “He could replay certain parts of the lesson, allowing him to catch up on anything he may have missed due to increased background noise,” says Gisela. “He’s coped with all the changes brilliantly.”

Now things are getting back to a new form of normal, the family are looking to the future, and next up is Hanukkah. The Jewish festival of lights, which the family call by its more traditional name of Chanukah, is marked in December, and it brings a welcome chance to celebrate after a stressful year. Maxi will be drawing on everything he’s learnt during home schooling to make the most of the celebrations.

"We might have lots of excited children together on one call, so other people’s awareness of Maxi’s needs is key."

“Chanukah commemorates a miracle in Jewish history and being with your friends and loved ones is important, so it will be very different this year,” says Gisela. “Maxi will find it hard not to celebrate in person with his friends.”

Usually, the family moves around on each night of the eight-day celebration, with events held at home and in the homes of friends and neighbours. “The different environments don’t usually affect Maxi too much,” says Gisela. “The main thing is making sure we manage the level of the music – as with any celebration – and ensuring that Maxi is aware of what will happen so that nothing is unexpected.”

This year, these face-to-face celebrations will be replaced with video calls. “We might have lots of excited children together on one call, and this can be hard for Maxi to follow,” Gisela explains.

During his time learning at home, Maxi found many ways to make busy video calls and virtual meetings easier though. “Making sure everyone on the call is aware of Maxi’s needs helps ensure even the busiest of calls can be managed,” says Gisela. “Other people’s awareness and empathy is key.”

Maxi has found closed captioning particularly helpful on video calls. Either the host can assign the captioning to another participant on the call (for example, a remote speech-to-text reporter) or a third-party closed caption service or app can be used. Apps, such as Otter.ai and Live Transcribe are particularly helpful.

"A silent disco is a great way for Maxi to enjoy big celebrations."

Hanukkah is usually marked with special services at the synagogue, too. “The weekly service takes place on a Saturday when the use of microphones is not allowed as it’s the Sabbath in Judaism,” says Gisela. “The absence of the microphone can make it difficult for Maxi to follow the service.” Services for special events such as Hanukkah, though, may be on different days and the use of a microphone can be very helpful for Maxi if the volume is properly managed.

Maxi always makes sure to sit near the front, facing the Rabbi, so that he can lip-read and, if the Rabbi were to use an FM system, that could help Maxi follow the service too.

The level of noise at large services and celebrations can still be overwhelming, though. “Sometimes, if there are lots of people all in a large, echoey room, the noise can feel like it’s destroying my ear drums,” says Maxi. “It can happen at prayer time in school or at the synagogue. I can stand it for a while, but sometimes I step outside if the noise becomes too much.”

While large gatherings and celebrations with friends and neighbours won’t be taking place this year, some traditions to mark Hanukkah will remain unchanged. The family will light a candle on the Hanukiah each night, play the dreidl (a four-sided spinning top), share chocolate coins to remember the importance of giving to others, and the children will receive a present on each of the eight days.

After a year in which celebrations have been marked very differently, next year is set to be one to remember for Maxi. He turns 13 and will celebrate his bar mitzvah – the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony for boys.

Maxi learns about his Jewish identity, religion and culture as part of his school curriculum and has been taking one-to-one Zoom lessons to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah and learn the prayers he'll read at the service.

“I’m excited and a bit nervous about my bar mitzvah,” says Maxi. “I’m excited about saying my prayers and giving my speech at the synagogue, but I’d like more time to prepare.”

A party is normally an important element of bar mitzvah celebrations, too. If it’s possible next year – dependent on the government restrictions in place at the time – the family plans to hold a silent disco, something Maxi has previously enjoyed.

“We don’t feel that the religious aspects of the bar mitzvah will be difficult for Maxi in terms of his hearing loss, but a silent disco will mean he can enjoy the party much more,” says Gisela. “He attended a silent disco to mark the end of primary school and loved being in control of the volume of the music. Maxi has been through so much this year and has worked so hard – we really hope that this big celebration will be possible.