A Hanukkah Giving Ritual Takes the Competition Out of The Season

Years ago, I struggled with how I was going to do Hanukkah in our home. Christmas was already set. We visit my partner’s parents who aren’t Jewish for the holiday season. I tell our kids, as many Jewish parents in interfaith relationships do, that we are helping their grandparents celebrate Christmas. It may sound a little weak but it is really true. Their grandparents would be sad to not have family around their tree, as would my partner. And our Jewish kids love getting a taste of Christmas even though they know it’s not “our” holiday.

But what to do about Hanukkah? This still posed a problem. My kids come to expect presents for Christmas, and I didn’t want them to receive too much at this time of year. Did they really need the eight nights of presents I grew up with if they were about to receive mounds of gifts a few weeks later? And what if the holidays overlapped? It would send a message of overabundance I try to temper all year long and would feel antithetical to the values I’m trying to instill.

I also didn’t want to fall into the trap of pitting the two holidays against each other. When Hanukkah and Christmas compete, Hanukkah loses every time. It is a minor Jewish holiday only made grand here in the United States by its proximity to Christmas. I’m not a fan of lifting it up in importance to make a point. Instead, in our family, we expend that energy by celebrating the more important Jewish holidays and Shabbat year round.

So the question remained: What would I want my kids to associate with Hanukkah as they grow up?

Hanukkah menorah and tzedakah box

Our kid-friendly menorah and tzedakah box

The answer came to me one year when I was doing my end-of-year philanthropic donations. I thought about the proximity of Hanukkah and the symbol of gelt, and the larger societal messages about December as a time of giving. As I waded through the mail, I recalled the piles of leaflets on my kitchen table growing up and how much I learned from my parents teaching me about the organizations they support. The timing was perfect! I decided to make Hanukkah into a holiday of giving—not receiving. In the glow of the Hanukkah candles, I taught my kids that tzedakah comes from the Hebrew root meaning “justice” and that philanthropic giving is a way we can help bring justice to the world. At their ages, they loved the idea that life could be fairer.

I gathered all of the leaflets we received from organizations and asked the kids what they thought. Which communities would they want to support? What makes them upset as they look around their world, from natural disasters to homelessness to our treatment of the environment? We poked around online as they thought about people who had had a particularly rough year. I told them how much we had to give, and asked them to make the tough choices about how to divide it up. Do we give a lot to a few places and really make an impact? Or give a little to many organizations so they know we care about them? Each year as they grow in maturity, I give them new problems to solve. Now, we put coins in a tzedakah box throughout the year before lighting candles on Friday night and they know that this money will also go to the Hanukkah giving pot.

Their choices have evolved over time. The first time we did this, they were excited about Sesame Workshop because bright red Elmo was (wisely) featured on the organization’s envelope. Next was their Jewish summer camp that suffered fire damage. Then we tackled the question of whether to give to local food banks or to hunger advocacy organizations trying to stamp out poverty from the top down. Would they rather support people in their neighborhood, in other regions of the country or the elsewhere in the world? The year DOMA was struck down, we discussed giving to Lambda Legal, an organization defending cases for the LGBT community. As they become more concerned about the environment, we have looked for organizations that address their concerns. This year, we will add to the list the importance of InterfaithFamily, helping families like ours navigate the holidays! (Yes, that was a not-so-subtle plug!) There is so much to do that it easily lasts eight nights.

Who knows what messages my kids will take away from the holiday season as they grow up? What will Christmas represent? What will they remember most about Hanukkah? I hope that by consciously highlighting tzedakah as a specific value, they will take the best from both of the December holidays that are part of their lives.

For more tzedakah Hanukkah ideas, check out these ideas from the URJ. And for more Hanukkah resources for families, go here.

The Shabbat Excuse

SaraSeveral years ago, my son’s 4-year-old classmate Sara was diagnosed with cancer. All of the families at our pre-school were devastated by the news. It could have been any of us, but it was sweet little Sara. We wanted to help. We were desperate to do something—ANYTHING—to help. We knew they had tons of toys, food and prayers. My friend Robyn Cohen and I spent hours on the phone trying to process the horror of it all and we knew we needed to do something for the family. Yet, there wasn’t much to be done.

Finally, on a Thursday afternoon, Robyn and I had an idea. We attended a pre-school where every week there was a “Shabbat Star” (even though many families at the school were not Jewish). We decided that this was our excuse to do something for Sara and her family. Because of the 40 minute drive to the hospital, we needed to pace ourselves. Each family in the class would sign up to drive to the hospital and bring Shabbat to Sara and her family. Since it was already Thursday, I raced to the bakery and got a challah and Robyn found candles. I gave the goodies to my husband whose office was a little closer to the hospital. He would be the first of many “deliverers” of Shabbat.

“Hi Sara! Guess who is the Shabbat Star this week? YOU are!” My husband announced to Sara and her parents. Sara beamed at the sight of the Shabbat kit and challah. And that was the beginning of our new ritual. The parents took turns each week. The school provided the challah and Sara’s family knew that every Friday there would be a Shabbat visitor. I vividly remember one of my visits. Sara wanted to know what was going on at school and was so happy to receive the latest artwork from her classmates.

We were fortunate to realize that Shabbat was good for Sara and her family. It guaranteed a visitor on a steady basis. It gave Sara a familiar structure from preschool. But, in retrospect, it benefited ALL of the families that stood by praying for Sara. It gave us an excuse to stop by and a way to feel useful. It united all of the families by discussing who would be the “deliverer” next week. We were delivering challah, but really it was so much more. We were delivering Shabbat. Another week of chemo was complete. Another hurdle had been jumped. We were honored to be able to deliver a challah and a smile to Sara and her family.

Sara's smiles logoSara survived another 10 months and her family made sure that every day had a positive experience. There is now an organization called “Sara’s Smiles” through which Sara’s family strives to help other families “Lift the cloud and inspire the joy.” Shabbat was a small piece of this quilt of positivity in the face of tragedy. If you want to learn more, check out saras-smiles.org. This non-profit currently delivers “inspiration kits” of positivity and support to 14 pediatric hospitals in six states, and the number is growing every month.

If you know of a family struggling, I’d recommend the “Shabbat excuse.” It is an easy way to support a family going through a rough time. A little challah and a little ritual can go a long way. And if you know of a family dealing with childhood cancer, check out “Sara’s Smiles.” It is a wonderful legacy to a very special little girl and her family.

Wedding/Bar Mitzvah Gift Giving Tips

Marilyn's menorahThe summer months are usually filled with life cycle events and celebrations, especially weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. It can be a challenge to find the perfect gift for the couple or young person, especially if you want to give something Jewish and are not sure what might be appropriate or where to find a particularly meaningful gift.

For weddings, a couple will register for toasters, dishes and small appliances but they may not think to list typical Jewish ritual items (Judaica) in their registry. The basic items that most Jewish couples might want to include in their Judaica collection are Shabbat candlesticks, a challah plate or board, a challah cover, Kiddush cup, a mezuzah—one or one for each doorway (except the powder room), a Hanukkah menorah, a dreidel and a small collection of Jewish books, such as a Siddur (prayer book), Tanach (Hebrew bible), Haggadot for Passover and a general book about Jewish rituals. You can also consider a seder plate for Passover, noise makers for Purim, apple and honey dishes for Rosh Hashanah or a cheesecake plate for Shavuot.

There are lots of places to shop for Judaica, online and in your community. You can Google “Judaica” or check out Fair Trade Judaica for wonderful handmade items that are crafted with no child labor, fair pay, and safe work conditions. You can also visit a local synagogue or Jewish Community Center and purchase something from their gift shop. A portion of your purchase will help support them and there will always be a very helpful salesperson who can help you to choose something special.

Books can be found at the Jewish Publication Society or at most online retailers. IFF/Bay Area created an extensive reading list relating to marriage that I urge you to make use of.  My Jewish Learning has an extensive list of recommended books. One of my favorites is Living a Jewish Life: Jewish Traditions, Customs and Values for Today’s Families by Anita Diamant & Howard Cooper. You can also choose something from InterfaithFamily’s list of interfaith-related titles.

Another option is to choose a family heirloom from your Judaica collection. I was given an old brass menorah by my stepmother before she passed away a few years ago and it remains a cherished memory of her faith, our roots in the old country and reminds me of the strong presence she had in my life.

When my husband and I got married a year ago, we decided that we preferred not to receive gifts, and instead, we chose four charities and asked our guests to send a donation in our honor. You can find a great source of charitable ideas on the Charity Navigator website, including ratings and top ten lists to browse through. You can also think about what issues are important to the recipient and donate to a nonprofit that supports that issue.

No matter what you choose, you can be certain that a gift of Judaica or help for a non-profit will be appreciated and remembered fondly for many years.