Don’t let the light go out.
More than a song lyric, this is a way of seeing the world. Keep the light alive; don’t be consumed by the dark. In our school, in our JCC, we see religion and tradition as a way of accessing values. Holidays are celebrated not because “they always have been” but because they allow us to reach down deep and connect with what matters to us.
The Maccabees stood up and said, “This is who we are. This matters to us.” When we celebrate Chanukah, we celebrate our ability to do the same. So, what is it that matters to you? What light can you not let go out? Chanukah invites you to answer this question, on an individual and family level. The menorah your child brought home this week is more than a ritual artifact; it is a door into answering that question. When you light the menorah, you are saying with each candle, “This is the light I won’t let go out.” Make Chanukah about what matters most to your family. Religion, traditions, and holidays become meaningful and relevant through your personal interpretation.
With that in mind, I offer you two compilations of ways to make Chanukah work for your family.
From Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, former nursery director here at JCC Manhattan and founder of the Shefa school:
Just be together - There is a tradition that you don’t engage in “work” while the Hanukah candles are burning. After you light the Hanukah candles, try to think about how you can make the time as the candles are melting special. You can turn off the lights and just enjoy the glow of the menorah, you can just stay together watching or you can read a story or sing some favorite songs. We all live such busy lives that it is nice sometimes just to stay put!
Give tzedakah - We have created a tradition in which we give our children a small amount of money each night (we give $10/night) to give to a charity of their choice. At the beginning of Hanukah, we sit down together and think about the issues that are important to them. Some causes that my children have chosen have included: the homeless, Israel, animals, their school, sick kids, UJA, and the environment. Once they identify an issue, we sometimes help them find the appropriate organization. Each night, after we light our candles, they write a letter (sometimes they dictate, I write) to the organization of their choice and enclose their gift. It is only after these letters are stuffed and sealed that we distribute our gifts to one another. I have found that this tradition has led to some very provocative and important conversations, including whether they should give a littl e money to a bunch of causes or more money to one or two. Does their little gift actually really help? Would it be better if they "pooled their resources" so that the gift was more substantial? And finally, what do these organizations do with the money they receive? It is also great when the thank you letters arrive from the organizations several weeks later.
Talk about your giving – Share with your children not only what we are receiving but also what we are giving for tzedakah. You might think that your children are too young to understand or that somehow you would be bragging if you talk about these choices. But think about the hundreds of purchases you make in a day that your children do witness. They watch you buy clothing, apartments, vacations and cars. They may also watch you walk by homeless people in the streets. Why shouldn't we also make our tzedakah visible?
Take a walk in the dark - Before lighting candles, try taking your family on a night walk. Go outside together and feel how dark it is. Even in the city, the month of December has a special darkness to it. Then come in from the cold and light the hanukiah (menorah). Feel the contrast between the darkness outside and the light inside.
Take care of the environment - The oil in the Temple menorah--which was only enough for one day but miraculously lasted for eight--can be understood as an early example of energy conservation! This year try to think about new ways that your family can help protect the environment.
Spend time with someone who is lonely - Hanukah is also a wonderful time to bring light into the lives of those around us. The winter months can be especially difficult for those who need help. Why not take come time this holiday to volunteer as a family at a local soup kitchen, shelter, or any place that is meaningful to you? Often, Jewish homes for the aged have Hanukah parties or communal lightings.
An 8-day approach: One approach that a colleague, Rabbi Rona Shapiro, suggests is to think about the nights as follows: Big Gift Night (when each child gets one big gift from us), Grandparent Night (when they open gifts from their grandparents), Book Night (a book from us), Music Night (when we sing, sometimes with friends), Cooking Night (when we make latkes and enjoy them with friends), Tzedakah Night (when we wrap presents to deliver to a children's hospital or other charity), and Homemade Gifts (lots are drawn before Hanukah and each member of the family makes a gift for someone else).
Top Eight Chanukah Gift Ideas for Children, by Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston:
1st night - A gift of Chanukah - Overwhelmingly, people told me that a special menorah was their most memorable gift. Children love to have their own and, as they get older, they love to light their own candles. There are lots of beautiful candles to purchase, too. A close second for a gift with a Chanukah theme was a special dreidl for each year. There are dreidls in all shapes and size. If you give a dreidl, remember to give a roll of pennies so you can play right away!
2nd night: A gift of generosity - The vast majority of children in the world work hard in their homes, in the fields, helping families to make ends meet and they are not the recipients of gifts. For younger children, this might need to be very concrete – choosing a present, wrapping it, and delivering it to a shelter or giving gloves or blankets to homeless people. For older children, they may want to choose a charity of their choice to which you will donate. As another idea, turn the tables one night: have the children give gifts to each other, to parents, to grandparents. Before Chanukah take time with each child to make a craft or shop for small gifts.
3rd night: A gift of togetherness - When was the last time that, as a family, you went to the movies or played a game? Make the third gift a gift for the whole family – something that you all will like doing together. Whether it is buying a new board game or something extravagant like tickets to a show in New York or to an Eagles game or a vacation, as long as the family is together, this will be a big hit.
4th night: A gift of knowledge - Every child has a fascination with some topic and wants to learn more about it. It might not match your interest or what you want them to learn (sports, fashion, or poker, for example). Remember that children learn best when they like the topic. Use this gift as an opportunity to help them to go more deeply into a topic of their choosing. This gift usually comes in the form of a book or magazine subscription (note: this gift keeps giving every month!), but it could be a model, a craft, or something to build; a science, magic or cooking kit; or a musical instrument or music, dance, or acting lessons.
5th night: A gift of labor - Here is a no-cost idea that kids love. Give each other coupons for “four hours of free labor.” Parents have to do whatever their children ask and children have to do whatever their parents ask, without complaining. Another variant is to give your child coupons for a “night off” or a “chore-free day.” Let them choose when and for what they want to redeem them.
6th night: A gift of comfort - Who wouldn’t want to receive a gift that brings a smile whenever it is used? You know best what comforts your child. Some like something associated with sleep – a new, soft blanket, a sleeping bag, or a stuffed animal. Others might like a something related to personal care, like a personal massager, a manicure set, or new cosmetics. Others might like something as simple as a coupon for hugs whenever they need arise or the gift of “time” – undivided attention for a designated length of time.
7th night: A gift of choice - Give each child a night when he can choose dinner, either a special dish cooked at home or a restaurant. Have these dinners together as a family. As another idea, give your child a gift card, a Visa Check Card (looks like a credit card – they love it!), or Chanukah gelt and let your child choose what to buy. It is traditional to give cash in $18 increments. Remember to include some chocolate Chanukah gelt.
8th night: A gift of being a Jew - Give a gift with a Jewish or an Israeli theme.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah,