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Hanukkah: Children's Issues

Rekindling the Lamp: Hanukkah and Children’s Issues

At the moment of rededication, the Maccabees relit the ner tamid, the eternal flame in the Temple. The ner tamid symbolizes God’s constant presence with the entire Jewish people. Because it is perpetually lit, the ner tamid also signifies a hope that God’s presence will continue to dwell with us from generation to generation (BT Shabbat 22b). What could be a better symbol for our hopes for a sustainable future than the ner tamid? Thus, as we kindle the Hanukkah lights, we think about how we can nurture our children and pass along a better world to them.

Hanukkah has become a children’s holiday. We have parties and play games, eat sweets and give gifts. Therefore, it is only natural that we consider children’s issues on Hanukkah. When we help all children gain the loving families, safe homes, health care and education they deserve, we help fulfill our mandate to nurture God’s creation in each generation. In addition, many other issues – including global climate change, environmental sustainability, economic justice, fair trade and poverty – affect children as well as adults. When we work for social justice in these areas, we also ensure the wellbeing of future generations.

Every Jew must light the ner tamid in his own heart, a light of God. It must not only be lit in Tabernacle or Tent, that is, in synagogue, house of study, or during prayer. But it must also be lit ‘outside the curtain’ (Exodus 27:21): in the street and market place, in one’s work, in profane activities, and in all matters regarding relations between one human being and another (Pardes Yosef, Itturei Ha Torah, vol. III, p. 229).

As we remember the ner tamid in the Temple, we also recall that each of us has a perpetual inner flame, a divine spark within. Like the Hanukkah lights, these flames are not to be kept hidden. Rather, we are to make manifest their brightness in our everyday actions – in our studies and on the street, in our prayers and in our homes, in our synagogues and in our communities. We can light these lamps by the work of our hands – from the clothing we collect for winter warm-up campaigns to the meals we cook for hungry mouths; by the words of our mouths – from the phone calls we make to our representatives to the stories we read to disadvantaged youth; and by the meditations of our hearts – as we ever strive towards the vision of a world redeemed.

In this labor, we work towards the messianic vision of the prophet Isaiah. The midrash Pesikta Rabbati makes a connection between the dedication of Hanukkah and the dedication of the world-to-come, “which also is to be celebrated with the light of lamps, as it is written, ‘And the light of the moon shall become like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall become sevenfold’ (Isaiah 30:26)” (Pesikta Rabbati 2:6, in The Hanukkah Anthology, pp.78-9).

Thus, as we kindle the Hanukkah lights, we think about how we can pass along a better world to our children. We think about how we can contribute to a world that can sustain us, our children and our children’s children. And we commit to working towards the repair of the world, for our day and for future generations.

Program Ideas on Children’s Issues

Projects for Individuals and Families

Ner Shel Tzedakah (A Candle of Righteousness) 
Ner Shel Tzedakah invites families to donate the value of the gifts (or the gifts themselves) that they would otherwise exchange on the sixth night of Hanukkah to tzedakah. Consider donating your Ner Shel Tzedakah funds or items to organizations working on behalf of children. Look for charities in your community working to end child hunger, providing support for abused and neglected children, advocating for healthcare for all children or providing education and/or afterschool programs for low-income children. If you are running a Mitzvah Mall program, consider including a few children’s charities. Donating to a children’s charity may be an especially meaningful way for the children in your family or the religious school to connect with Ner Shel Tzedakah. For more information or programming ideas for Ner Shel Tzedakah, click here.

Become a Big Brother or a Big Sister 
Make a real difference in a child’s life. By becoming a friend and mentor to their Little Brothers and Sisters, Big Brothers and Sisters help foster self-esteem, confidence and life skills, while having a great time. To learn more and find out about volunteering.

Programs for Religious Schools and Youth Groups

Help Kids in Developing Countries Receive a Quality Education
Free the Children, a Canadian based organization run by and for children, sponsors a school-building campaign to ensure that all kids receive the education they deserve and to help break the cycle of poverty. Through Free the Children, you can raise money to build schools, create kits of school supplies to send to needy children, and participate in trips to developing countries to build schools and participate in community development. For more information.

For High School and College Students: Participate in SPROUT and SHOUT
Through the Student Health OUTreach project (SHOUT) and the Student Poverty Reduction OUTreach program (SPROUT), two student-run programs of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), high school and college students partner with community-based organizations to reach out and enroll all eligible children in federal health-insurance programs and other poverty reduction programs. Information on both projects is available here.

Take Religious School Students on Social Justice Field Trips
Help religious school students learn about social justice issues by taking them on an educational field trip. For instance, students might make bag lunches to hand out during a Midnight Run, cook and serve meals at a local Soup Kitchen or visit a homeless shelter (during off hours). If you are visiting an organization, have students prepare interview questions to ask the director and/or program coordinator.

Implement Bullying Prevention Programs in Your Synagogue or School
During Hanukkah, we learn about standing up for what is right, especially in a world where some people force others to live in a way that is uncomfortable or dangerous for them. For many children, bullying is one of the greatest challenges they face. In a 1998 Study, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development concluded that “30 percent of students in grades six through ten were involved in moderate to frequent bullying as perpetrators, victims or both.”

Bullying can be “defined as aggressive verbal or physical behavior committed by a child or group of children to intimidate, harass or harm a child or group of children, [and is] universally reprehensible.” Bullying has harmful effects on children’s mental health and on crime prevention. Kids who are bullied are five times more likely to be depressed. And, “bullying is an early warning sign that children and youth may be headed down a path to more serious antisocial behavior.”

As people who suffered for our religious differences, we can understand what it is like to be attacked because we are perceived to be different. By developing and implementing programs to help kids take a stand against bullying and to help prevent bullying, we can help reduce this behavior and make a positive difference for the children in our communities.

Resources for these programs include:

  • Operation Respect: Don’t Laugh at Me (DLAM) helps “sensitize children to the painful effects of behaviors that too often are accepted as necessary rites of passage in childhood—ridicule, disrespect (or ‘dissing’), ostracism and bullying. DLAM is designed to inspire children, along with their teachers and other educators, to transform their classrooms and schools into ‘Ridicule Free Zones.’” DLAM also runs programs for camps. Information is available at www.operationrespect.org.
  • “Bullying Prevention is Crime Prevention,” a research brief by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, has statistics on bullying and information on bullying prevention programs.

Organize a War Toy Trade-in to Help Child Soldiers through the War Is Not a Game Campaign
Over 300,000 children around the world are being used as soldiers in conflicts around the world. Among many reasons, armies recruit or force children to fight because children may be viewed as more expendable, children will follow orders more readily than adults, children are more trusting and more easily manipulated and children cost less to maintain.

Although Hanukkah celebrates a military victory, we continue to pray for a world in which swords will be turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Until that time, the very least we can do is ensure that children are not placed in the front lines of combat.

Raise awareness about this issue and raise money to help these children rebuild their lives through the War is Not a Game Campaign. In this program, youth in peaceful countries (such as the United States or Canada) organize a war toy “trade in” in their schools and communities. According to the program’s website, “As they trade in their toys, youth will be making the symbolic statement that: ‘While we play war, for millions of kids around the world War Is Not a Game.’”

Information on war affected children and the War Is Not a Game Campaign is here. (Look under “Children and War” and “Projects.”)

Raise Gun Safety Awareness in Your Community
Students at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, NJ started Asking Saves Kids (A.S.K.), a program designed to educate about gun safety. Middle school students spoke at parent-teacher group meetings at local schools, raising awareness about gun violence from a nonpartisan, public health perspective. They also gave workshops at URJ Regional Biennials to help other congregations start their own A.S.K. programs.

Programs for Congregations

Sponsor An ‘Operation Crib’
Partner with a local battered women’s shelter or homeless shelter to get a ‘wish list’ of needed baby items. Place a crib in the synagogue lobby in which congregants can place their donations. Also, you may want to place a tzedakah box alongside the crib for monetary donations for larger items.

Support Kids Cafés to help End Child Hunger
Run by America’s Second Harvest, the Kids Café program provides free and prepared food and nutrition education to hungry children. Kids Cafes achieve this goal by utilizing existing community resources, such as Boys and Girls Clubs or schools. Although not every city or state is home to a Kids Café, many food banks and food-rescue programs operate programs specifically for children. Become involved in a Kids Café or similar program by contacting your local food bank or food rescue program. Or, make a donation to help fund these programs through America’s Second Harvest. For more information follow the links on “How We Work,” then “National Initiatives,” and then “Kid’s Café.”

​Support Educational Programs
The word “Hanukkah” shares its root (core meaning) with another Hebrew word: chinuch, or education. As we seek to create a sustainable future for all of our children, one of the most important things we can do is to ensure a quality education for all. A quality education can help lift a child out of the cycle of poverty, ensuring him or her a brighter future.

Partner with a Local School
Create a synagogue partnership with a local public school. There are many ways to become involved, including coordinating donations of needed goods, creating a tutoring corps, volunteering in classrooms and organizing or sponsoring school events. The CSA Guide: “For the Sake of the Children: A Synagogue Guide to Public School Partnerships” has many helpful suggestions for setting up a partnership program and for involving a broad spectrum of the congregational community in this important work. It also includes descriptions of congregations who have successful partnership programs.

Volunteer to Tutor at a Local School or Library
Many schools and libraries have special programs for at-risk youth. Seniors, high school students and members of sisterhood or brotherhood (among others) can make a significant difference in a child’s life. Tutoring programs often require that volunteers commit to several months to ensure continuity for the children in the program. Check with your local public schools, libraries and community centers for volunteer opportunities, or visit the website of the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy.

Books for Boys: A Model of a Literacy Project
Members of Woodlands Community Temple in Greenburgh, NY and of Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, NY partner with Children’s Village, a residential school for vulnerable and abused boys from the New York City foster care system, in the Books for Boys Program. Books for Boys was founded by Pam Allyn, a member of Woodlands, as a way to bring the love and joy of reading to these troubled children. The congregations actively collect books for the boys, and they also coordinate volunteers to read aloud with the boys at bedtime, lunch and other times during the day. Contact Pam Allyn at (914) 674-2150 or pallyn@litlifeinfo.com for more information.

In conjunction with Random House, Temple Beth Abraham is sponsoring Birthday Books, in which each child in the village receives a new book for his birthday. Volunteers have also brought authors and illustrators into the community to visit with the boys.

Host a Carnival or Day Camp for Special Needs Kids
Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, NY hosts a “Mitzvah Day Carnival” in which volunteers from the congregation provide suitable activities such as crafts and games for children between the ages of three and twelve who have special needs. These include children with cancer, Down’s Syndrome, children of recent immigrants from Latin America, and other children for whom the Carnival is a most welcome diversion. Half the Carnival volunteers are themselves between the ages of 12 and 16, and for most of them, the Carnival is an introduction to a world very different from their own. Additionally, through its work in preparing the Carnival together with the community agencies, the congregation has identified an array of needs that have been translated into other Mitzvah Day projects.

Join with the Children’s Defense Fund: Become a Congregation to Leave No Child Behind
This Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) campaign seeks “to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.” Participating congregations pledge to annually educate about the needs and concerns of children, directly serve in outreach efforts such as after-school programs, practice spiritual disciplines, such as participating in a National Observance of Children's Sabbaths, to sustain long-term participation in the Leave No Child Behind Movement, and advocate for systematic change. In addition to a certificate of commitment, participating congregations receive resources from CDF, email updates and access to a bulletin board discussion for participating congregations. More information on this program.

Resources on Children’s Issues 

- Visit the RAC’s page on Children’s Issues
- For comprehensive resources on child poverty in the United States, including statistics and fact sheets, head to the National Center for Children in Poverty.
- For upper elementary students, the G’milut Chasadim component of the CHAI: Learning for Jewish Life, Level 6 Curriculum Core has helpful resources and lesson plans. For information on the CHAI Curriculum, visit the site.
​- Visit Mazon (“What You Should Know”) for further educational resources on kids and hunger.