On the verge of finals week, college students took a break from studying to gamble, indulge in free drinks and dance in the light of a disco ball -- all in the name of Hanukkah.
But what do a casino night and a disco dance at an annual party at the Hillel Jewish University Center have to do with Hanukkah? More than you might think, said Annie Lascoe, the center's director of Jewish Student Life at the University of Pittsburgh.
The spinning dreidel that most people now consider a Hanukkah-related toy was historically used like dice to play a gambling game. And the lighted disco ball is a reminder "of the importance of light in the Hanukkah story," she said.
But above all, students' donations -- each $5 offering earned a player $10,000 in fake money for Thursday's casino night -- will go directly to victims of Hurricane Sandy. The money will be sent to the Hurricane Sandy Response Fund of Bend The Arc, a Newark, N.J.-based charity that aids disaster victims in low-income neighborhoods.
"So this is providing light and power, which was the miracle of Hanukkah," she said. "It really ties into other Jewish values, including tzedakah, or charity, and greater global awareness."
Hanukkah commemorates a miracle that is said to have happened around 165 BC, when Judea was ruled by a foreign dynasty whose king was obsessed with promoting the Greek culture and religion. Antiochus IV outlawed central Jewish practices including circumcision and observance of the Sabbath, torturing and killing those who disobeyed him. He built an altar to Zeus in the Jerusalem temple and sacrificed a pig there. He was driven out by a Jewish guerrilla army, whose leaders immediately sought to purify the desecrated temple. This required the temple's seven-branched lampstand to burn perpetually, but the priests found only enough olive oil for one day. Nevertheless they lit it and the oil mysteriously burned for eight days, allowing them to obtain a new supply.
That miracle is celebrated for eight nights, starting this year at sundown tonight and ending at sundown Dec. 16. The timing of the holiday is far from ideal for Pitt students, whose finals week begins Monday and concludes next Saturday.
Michael Fingerman, a 19-year-old who will lead Pitt's student board at Hillel next year, said his last final is Dec. 15 and he will spend one day of Hanukkah with his family. The party is one of many ways the center allows him to celebrate the traditions he knew growing up.
"We want to give everyone that feeling of a second home," he said.
Hanukkah's central religious symbol is a nine-branched candelabra or menorah, with the central candle used to light others for each night of the holiday. But it also includes the dreidel game and foods made with oil, especially latkes.
Mr. Fingerman said 1,500 of the greasy potato pancake treats, which were served warm with sour cream and apple sauce, were made for the celebration. Vibrant paper menorahs, dreidels and Jewish stars hung from the ceiling and small menorahs adorned the room.
Ms. Lascoe got the idea for the party at her alma mater of Washington University in St. Louis, where the Hanukkah party was revamped as a casino night to benefit a charity that subsidized heat and light for low-income people in St. Louis.
In Pittsburgh, Hillel's Hanukkah party has long been one of its most popular events, drawing at least 200 students, Ms. Lascoe said. But there was positive response to the idea of transforming it.
Jewish groups in Pittsburgh have been focusing on helping college seniors and graduate students make the jump from student activities to Jewish life as a young professional. As a bridge-builder for students who are 21-and-up, the Hanukkah party started with a happy hour at 7 p.m.
Lindsay Lehrman, 21, of Cherry Hill, N.J., has attended the party for several years. She said the ability to celebrate with a drink and partake in more age-appropriate activities at the center gave her a better incentive to return.
"They don't do this kind of thing in Hillel," she said grinning. "I was not going to pass away an opportunity to drink here."
When happy hour ended at 8 p.m., the first floor became the venue for a latke-making party and the "dreidel disco" lit up on the third floor.
The games began at 8:30 p.m., with professional dealers who discounted their services to help Sandy victims, Ms. Lascoe said. But it was set up to keep the stakes low.
"It's more like they're gambling with play money," she said. "We're not looking for it to get out of control or to encourage any latent gambling tendencies."
For some students, the fundraiser hit closer to home than they had ever anticipated.
Mr. Fingerman grew up in Long Island and was there when Sandy flooded the city. His family was without power for a few days and had no heat for two weeks.
"You're used to seeing groups going to New Orleans, or other places that suffer disasters," Mr. Fingerman said. "Now it's weird to see people going where I'm from."
Taryn Luna: email@example.com or 412-263-1985.