Where Do You Give?

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On the 1st Night of Chanukah: Religious Schools Celebrate Presents AND Giving

The following was written by Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin, a Rabbinical Student Delegation alumna and Congregational Educator at of Temple Emanuel in California.

It’s a religious school routine, and has been for generations. Before you get out of the car in the carpool line, you hang your head over the front seat and put out your hand.

“I need a dollar.”
“What for?”
“For tzedakah.”

And then, inevitably, the parent opens his or her wallet, fishes out a dollar or any other spare change, and hands it over. Later, as the tzedakah-box gets passed around the classroom, the student is proud to have something to contribute.

Some parents brought this up to me recently as an issue.  They wondered if this request for tzedakah is as meaningful as it could be. Do the kids know where their tzedakah is going? Do they know that tzedakah can take forms other than money? How meaningful is it, really, to ask for a dollar while hanging over the front seat of the car? There must be a better way.

There couldn’t have been a more perfect time of year to begin this conversation. On the brink of Hanukkah, giving is on all of our minds. Without getting too swept up in the frenzy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we seek out ways to give meaningful gifts to family and friends.

But of course, gift giving was never the original purpose of Hanukkah: this aspect has been amplified due to Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas, and increased marketing efforts to consumers like us.

Presents are not a bad thing. It feels good to give to those we love. However, there is room in our tradition for adjustment: to include not only gifts for family and friends, but also gifts to those who are in need. This way, the gifts that we give and receive on Hanukkah become even more impactful when we include gifts of tzedakah.

With the help of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and their new educational campaign entitled ‘Where Do You Give?’, we adjusted our Hanukkah Hagigah this year to include an emphasis on tzedakah. Together, parents and children made lists of the gifts that they have in their lives. With everything ranging from ‘X-Box’ and ‘friends,’ to ‘food to eat’ and ‘supportive family,’ it was clear that our community at Temple Emanuel is very blessed. From there, families used the lists that they had made to think about the sorts of gifts that they might be able to help provide for someone else. From volunteering at a soup kitchen to collecting money for an animal shelter, these gifts, our families decided, would be excellent tzedakah opportunities to try during Hanukkah this year.

This conversation began a few weeks ago between the students and teachers in our Religious School regarding the tzedakah that we collect each week. We heard parents say that they didn’t want our tzedakah collection to begin and end with that dollar from the car, and we agreed. This year, our tzedakah collection will go towards a year-long effort, culminating with Big Sunday (a community-wide day of service taking place this year on May 6, 2012). Each of our Religious School classes has chosen a Big Sunday project to support with their tzedakah, and they look forward to the hands-on connection with the tzedakah they have raised in May.

As the year continues and we work hard to raise the level and awareness of our focus on tzedakah in the Religious School, we look forward to seeing the way that parents and teachers will partner together to make more meaning out of that moment in the car.

Perhaps it will begin as our families light their Hanukkah menorahs. AJWS suggests adding the following ritual to your candle lighting and gift giving this year. After saying the traditional Hanukkah candle blessings, consider putting a few coins in the pushke and saying these words:

As we gather by the light of the Hanukkah candles, we are thankful for the many blessings and gifts in our lives. We commit to giving tzedakah so that others may also enjoy these blessings and gifts.

May we continue to have the courage to give generously and the wisdom and patience to give responsibly.


Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin


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