Inside the joyous dreidel-spinning competition at a Minneapolis Jewish day school

Four students spin their dreidels
Eighth-grader Avi H. (left to right), sixth-grader Mia M., first-grader Eitan S. and eighth-grader Max R. spin their dreidels in the first round of the Great Dreidel Spin Off at Heilicher Jewish Day School in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Updated: 3 p.m.

The lunchroom at Heilicher Jewish Day School in Minneapolis was buzzing on Wednesday with more than 100 kids ready for the biggest event of their Hanukkah celebrations so far.

Teacher Wendy Goldberg said the school has been in high spirits this week for Hanukkah. Students have been making crafts like clay menorahs and wearing blue and white Hanukkah sweaters to celebrate the eight-day Jewish holiday.

A boy wearing a hat lights menorah candles
Eighth-grader Max R. lights a menorah at Heilicher Jewish Day School in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“It’s just a lot of fun-spirited stuff to see all the funny sweaters and T-shirts that everyone’s wearing. This year we have Crocs with dreidels on them. So a lot of fun,” Goldberg said.

They’ve also been singing Hanukkah songs together in English, Yiddish, Ladino, Hebrew and sometimes Russian, Goldberg said, and eating fried sweet treats like sufganiyot and sfenj. 

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A menorah burns in front of a projector screen
A screen announcing the “Great Dreidel Spin Off” is projected in the lunch room at Heilicher Jewish Day School in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The school has also been continuing a tradition called the Great Heilicher Dreidel spinoff. It’s a dreidel-spinning competition that’s been happening in each classroom. It started Monday, when each student got to spin. The top three spinners in each class advanced to Tuesday, when they spun again to determine a semifinalist from each class.

Wednesday was when the competition ramped up, moving from the classrooms to a headlining event in the lunchroom. After finishing their meals and Hanukkah songs, the students huddled around a big round table in anticipation.

Students pack around a table as a purple dreidel spins
The purple dreidel of eighth-grader Avi H. outlasts its three competitors during the first round of the Great Dreidel Spin Off at Heilicher Jewish Day School in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The semifinalists were competing in rounds. They sat around the table to spin purple, blue, yellow, green and red dreidels — one color per kid, to make it clear who won — while dozens of kids crowded behind them to watch.

Five kids snapped their dreidels to start round one. As some dreidels started petering out, kids began chanting one boy’s name: “Avi! Avi!” Eighth grader Avi’s purple dreidel won with a spin lasting more than 13 seconds. As it was still spinning, Avi stood up, pointed in the air and yelled “yeah!”

A young boy smirks as he looks to his right
Kindergartner Reuben C. glances at previous-round winner Avi H. before he spins his dreidel at Heilicher Jewish Day School in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Seventh grader Ilan took round two. As sixth grader Carmela’s green dreidel won round three, she smiled and yelled “sorry, guys!” A fourth-grade boy won round four.

The finalists shared tips and reactions in a post-victory group interview with MPR News.

“I try to, like, dry off my fingers so they’re not sweaty, so then it will, like, spin,” Carmela said.

Carmela and Ilan were surprised to make it this far.

“I don’t think of myself being that good at dreidel. I just kind of spun it and it just happened,” Ilan said.

Meanwhile, eighth grader Avi not only knew he would be a finalist – he was confident he’d claim the title of Heilicher’s best dreidel spinner.

“I’ve been using barbells and things to strengthen my fingers,” Avi said.

Deborah Getsug, admissions director at Heilicher, said the dreidel competition was her favorite event of the week.

“Seeing all the children gathered around one table watching this dreidel spin-off was a total thrill. And I know that they’re gonna go home and talk about it and remember it for years to come.”

In the end, Avi did take the crown. His friend lifted him up and they yelled with joy as he won the final round on Friday, the last day of Hanukkah.

Hands hold a sugary doughnut
Avi H. holds a sfenj doughnut during lunch at Heilicher Jewish Day School in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News