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On the 5th Night of Chanukah: Families Watch Brightness Enter Our World

December has rolled around, and once again it is hard to avoid the annual conversation about excessive gift giving and its apparent cure—unbridled charity and the negation of the self. We hear reports of competitive shopping, nourished by the false notion that an iphone or a box of Legos will replace human presence and unconditional love. At the same time, we are treated to aggrandized stories of goodness on steroids. I just heard a radio story about a ten year old who swears she wants no presents this year—not a single thing. The news last night featured a family who will spend each night of Hanukkah visiting a different shelter to serve food and donate blankets. How does a normal family strike a balance? How do we raise our children with a vibrant obligation towards tzedakah coupled with an appreciation for abundance when it comes their way?

Hanukkah provides a wonderful opportunity to engage in both joyful giving and gracious receiving. In my family, we have two favorite ways to approach tzedekah during Hanukkah. The first is our annual toys for tots extravaganza. When our kids were younger, I used to take them out shopping before we lit the candles. Each child would choose a few toys that they thought a kid their age would especially appreciate. Then we would drop the toys off for kids celebrating Christmas whose families would not be able to provide them with gifts that year. We liked the “toys for tots” program because they have many drop off sites. We could bring the toys to collection locations right after purchasing them. There was no risk they would sit in a closet or in my car—they always got where they needed to go.

After delivering the gifts, we came home, lit the hanukkiah, and ate sufganiot. Our Hanukkah celebration was enriched by helping others celebrate their holiday, and the connection felt palpable to our children who had personally selected gifts for other children to enjoy. Today my three children are teenagers, so the nature and shape of this ritual has changed—but we still use Hanukkah as a time to give toys to families who need that help.

Our second favorite Hanukkah tzedakah activity is a dedicated tzedakah night. This is exactly the concept behind the “got gelt” initiative, and it is one we have done for many years.  I know other families who do this, and it is a great thing to do no matter who constitutes your household. The family or group of friends agrees on a sum to give to tzedakah. Everyone comes to candle lighting prepared to advocate for a particular organization or cause. While the candles are burning you can discuss the reasons you want to support the various options on the table. When you come to agreement, you say a blessing, write a check, and bring it immediately out to the mailbox—or go online and click. Like the gift delivery described above, this has always been a crucial step in my own household. The more you can do to immediately actualize your giving, the more you insure that the results get where you want them to go.

Over the years, we have tried lots of ways to make tzedakah part of our Hanukkah celebration. These two had the most staying power, and have become a regular part of our practice. We do give gifts—usually one thing that is lovely and special for each child. We eat lots of fried food. We make sure that we are all together to light candles—even if that is late at night—so we can sit together and watch the brightness enter the world.

Want more ways to incorporate tzedakah into your family Chanukah celebration? Check out Got Gelt? A Conversation about Giving in this Season of Receiving for guided discussions and more!

Photo courtesy of john curley

Rabbi Deborah Glanzberg-Krainin

Rabbi Deborah Glanzberg-Krainin is assistant vice president for community and rabbinic engagement at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where she also serves as executive editor of Ritualwell (www.ritualwell.org). Deborah and her husband Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin have three children, Eliana, Klielle, and Noam.

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