This article appeared in the Dec. 12, 2008 Jewish Advocate.
Local shuls spearhead creative ways to give
by Susie Davidson
Special to the Advocate
Between the gifts and the gelt, some in eight-day allotments, it seems we do an awful lot of receiving during Chanukah. Judaic teachings, however, remind us that we must also give during this holiday time. Rabbis and scholars say that it's inherent in our teachings, good for the soul, instructive for children, and quietly gracious toward others.
"A responsibility to care for the hungry and homeless and create a society that strives for wholeness," says Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, Executive Director of Tufts Hillel, "is a vision articulated in the Torah, stressed by the Prophets, refined and implemented by the rabbis throughout Jewish history."
Temple Tifereth Israel in Malden takes these admonitions to heart. As part of Project Ezra (an outreach volunteer program of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, where multi-denominational Jewish volunteers help with local food programs) and in partnership with Bread of Life Charities, the shul sends over 100 members to St. Paul's Parish in Malden on Christmas morning at 2 a.m.
"We have been doing this for 22 years, and Dr. Ed Weiner has led the effort for the past 11 with his son Jonathan," said 1st Vice President Lauren Cherkas. "Our volunteers turn the ovens on at the Church at 3 a.m." Cherkas said that TI, along with Malden sister congregation Agudas Achim-Ezrath Israel, serves 500 people in need from Malden, Everett, Melrose, Saugus and Medford. The remaining 250-plus meals are packaged and delivered to homes by synagogue members and Hebrew School students.
Compassion is also on the menu at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, N.H. "We collect items for the soup kitchen all year long," said Social Action Committee co-Chair Carol Kaplan. As part of the Greater Nashua Interfaith Network, synagogue members volunteer for one week every six weeks at the Anne Marie House, a transitional house for homeless families. "We will be at the house on Dec. 24 and 25," said Kaplan, "so that staff can celebrate the holiday."
"Through an organization called Chai Lifeline, we are encouraging people to purchase gifts at our gift table, wrap them, and have them sent to needy children," said Rabbi Zalman Gurkow, who with his wife, Malkie, leads the Chabad of Nashoba Valley in Westford.
According to Chabad.org, it traditional to give children Chanukah gelt after lighting the menorah, but they should be likewise encouraged to give some of it away as well: "This...gives adults an opportunity to give children positive reinforcement for exemplary behavior, such as diligence in their studies, and...the children should be encouraged to give charity from a portion of their money."
The National Jewish Outreach Program materials state that it became customary to distribute money at Chanukah time so that it does not come across as charity, but as “Chanukah gelt.”
The Tzedakah Council at Kerem Shalom in Concord is collecting for Birthday Angels, a grassroots organization that donates a birthday party kit to needy children in Israel. "The party is actually put on by several family service agencies," said synagogue Education Director Pat Lukens, who reported that the students have already collected enough money for four parties. Students have also recently collected money and cartons of basic first aid supplies for a tiny village in Honduras. "A Concord resident, Emily Collins, travels to Honduras several times a year to help with a free medical clinic," explained Lukens. Two of Kerem Shalom's Bat Mitzvah students will be providing babysitting for the two children who are coming back next month for medical care.
Last year, Kerem Shalom collected money for phone cards for soldiers in Iraq and Afganistan, and worked with the Bedford VA hospital to distribute get-well cards to injured soldiers. They bought blank cards from the West Concord post office, which conducts the annual drive. The 300-member congregation states on their Web site: "We believe that the ideals of Judaism - justice, kindness and compassion - mean we must reach beyond ourselves to help others who are in need."
Temple Shalom Emeth in Burlington is sponsoring their seventh annual "Create Your Own Hannukiah" contest to raise money for their sister congregation in Israel, Kehilat Yozma in Modiin. Rabbi Susan Abramson, author of the Rabbi Rocketpower childrens' book series and one of the first fifty women ever to be ordained as a rabbi, explained that the synagogue has sent money to help fund their security guards, and last year, it was earmarked to pay for more pre-school teachers. "About 35 people create hannukiot each year," she said. At their Chanukah party, people walk around the display, and 'vote' for the ones they want by putting money into the tzedakah box in front of each.
It succeeds on many levels.
"Families work together to create a unique ritual object," said Abramson. "Kids are very excited to see people voting for their menorah. Everyone is reminded about Israel and our connection to our sister congregation." And everyone who walks through the door is impressed with the creativity. This year's contest is on Sunday, Dec. 21, and the hannukiot are displayed for viewing in the Social Hall during the Dec. 19 Chanukah Family Worship Service.
Kinneret Shiryon, the rabbi of Kehilat Yozma, is Abramson's former classmate at Hebrew Union College. “What could be more perfect than the fact that her congregation is in Modiin, the home of the Maccabees!"
Temple Aliyah in Needham also reaches out to its sister congregation in Kiryat Bialik, Israel, and has raised funds for needy soldiers. Aliyah's Sisterhood Rosh Chodesh group wrote personal Chanukah cards to accompany gifts for them as well. The synagogue also collects gifts for children of the JF&CS' Family Table recipients, and matches congregation members with families in need of Christmas gifts through a Norfolk County social service agency.
"Time and again," said Rabbi Jonah Pesner of Temple Israel in Boston in a 2005 sermon, which still rings true, "Jewish tradition calls us to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger - reminding us, that as we were society's most vulnerable, we are obligated to protect the vulnerable among us."