If the thought of spending too much Chanukah gelt on lavish gifts for friends and loved ones seems a little dim this year, adding a little tikkun olam to the presents can give your Festival of Lights a memorable glow.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has assembled a Social Justice Chanukah Gift Guide with gift-giving ideas suitable for all the do-gooders on your list. Buying fair trade products, adopting a U.S. serviceman or servicewoman, donating blood or joining the National Bone Marrow Registry are just a few of the suggestions that can be found easily on their website. There’s an idea for each of the eight nights of Chanukah.
The organization created the guide two years ago, says Naomi Abelson, the social action specialist at the Union for Reform Judaism, “when we realized no such resource existed” to help those interested in giving gifts for Chanukah with a social justice bent.
Some rabbis and synagogues go even further in aiding their congregants with non-commercial gift-giving ideas.
Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, Texas, has been hosting a Chanukah Mitzvah Bazaar for the past 15 years, says Rabbi Cookie Olshein, as an alternative to gift shopping for the holiday.
A philanthropic cause is chosen each year—like hunger, aging, Israel or the environment—and several charitable organizations devoted to the cause are invited to come to the bazaar and introduce their work, services and mission to the holiday shopping congregants. The shoppers select an organization that they would like to support, and purchase a donation for friends and loved ones in lieu of buying them an actual present. A beautiful, personalized card is included.
“Chanukah isn’t Yom Kippur, it isn’t a major holiday,” Olshein says. “It is a celebration of Jewish identity, and small acts can make a big change in the world.”
And unlike Purim, says Rabbi Sari Laufer of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in New York, there is no religious commandment instructing us to give gifts on Chanukah.
Still, every year, Laufer compiles an “8 Nights, 8 Ways” list for her congregants with suggestions for them to “Bring Hope on Chanukah,” she says. For families who want to bring a social action spirit to their holiday celebration, Laufer encourages parents to have their children pick out a toy for a child in need instead of receiving one themselves or volunteering as a family at a soup kitchen one night instead of making latkes at home.
Since gift giving is probably not what the Maccabees had in mind for celebrating the Chanukah miracle, Rabbi Elyse Frishman of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J., says the home-based aspect of the holiday lends itself to an ideal opportunity for families to also reinforce traditional values like learning, humility and acts of loving kindness.
During the lighting of the menorah, Frishman encourages families to take the time and ask questions: Who are these candles for? What matters to us as a family? Who might we think of tonight?
If children in need of books come to mind, Reading Village, a nonprofit organization that promotes literacy in impoverished villages in Guatemala, has created a family discussion guide geared to Chanukah.
With its Light Up Literacy program, children are encouraged to forgo a toy on the seventh night and instead give tzedakah to Reading Village. Guided learning material for having a discussion about the importance of books and literacy are also part of the program, along with a special blessing to be recited over the Chanukah candles.
The program, says Linda Smith, founder of Reading Village, not only “helps to lessen the consumerism angle” of Chanukah but creates a shared bound between Jewish families and the families in Guatemala, since candle-lighting rituals are also symbolic in Mayan culture.
Rabbi Isaac Jeret, of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., however, says the Chanukah candles should ultimately serve as a reminder “of our unique Jewish light.”
“We won’t be able to be there for anybody else if we don’t ensure our own sustainability,” Jeret says. “We teach the world by way of example, but we are the miracle of Chanukah and we must preserve that light.”