I held my breath as I glanced over at her children. How would they react to their mother's announcement about no presents. Mom's decision negated what has become for so many American Jewish kids the central expression of their celebration of Chanukah? Would the children kvetch and complain? Would they argue and yell?
Surprisingly, none of them reacted at all. It might have been begrudging resignation, but I sensed something more. These children - raised to value tzedakah and the centrality of gemilut chasadim (doing acts of lovingkindness) - already have embraced the essential lesson of Chanukah - that we are to increase the light in the world. I think their silence bespoke their agreement. How do I know? Because I watched them - and another 170 other adults and children - as they experienced something so profound that it cajoled them beyond the gimme, gimme nature of this "Thanksgiving through Christmas" season.
Childspree: An Afternoon of Helping Others
I should mention that the children and their mother were leaving Congregation Or Ami's Childspree, an afternoon devoted to chaperoning at risk kids through a department store so they could purchase $100 worth of needed and desired items. These volunteers helped create a warm, welcoming experience in which the at risk kids left the store with new clothes, a toy, and perhaps even a gift to give their parent or sibling.
Childspree at Or Ami is in its 8th year. The project has grown from a small activity day into a major social action endeavor through the imagination and determination of our volunteers. I daresay that preparing for Childspree takes significant amounts of time yet simultaneously is surprisingly simple. What our amazing and inspiring lead volunteer Lucille Shalometh Goldin and her committee did:
- Partner with a local organization that supports children at risk of dropping out of school or getting in trouble with the law. We choose New Directions for Youth, with whom we have a long-standing relationship. The relationship is deepened through the participation of NDY's lead volunteer Patti Jo Wolfson, who is a beloved, longtime master teacher in our youth learning programs.
- Raise $100 per child to fund each shopping spree. We set our sights on chaperoning 100 kids (up from our initial goal of 50 kids, which surpassed our previous successes with 36 kids). Donations poured in from congregants, grants from local organizations, and from the goodwill fund of a local law firm (see below).
- Convince a local department store to open its doors and devote specific registers and staff solely to our shopping spree. Encourage the store to provide us with substantial discounts so our donated dollars went further. We worked with Kohl's department store in West Hills, CA.
- Partner with a local business to increase the number of children we could chaperone. We chose Ezra Brutzkus Gubner LLP, law firm of our congregant Steve Gubner, whose staff sponsored the 50 additional kids and showed up at Childspree to chaperone those kids through the store.
- Invite a local restaurant to provide pizza lunch for the kids, some of whom come from families that cannot provide them with 3 meals a day. We thank Stonefire Grill, a delicious local eatery that so many of us frequent.
- Sign up volunteers to chaperone the kids through the store. This was the easiest part of all. Once we spread the word about our project, Or Ami members signed up, including families from our learning programs, and others from the local community. Joyfully, the event is so powerful that one former congregant family which had moved away returned to the area just to help with this event.
When Gemilut Chasadim (Doing Acts of Lovingkindness) Take Root
Another mom shared this experience:
When she, her six-year-old son, and their new friend, arrived at the check out line, they discovered that the total cost of their items - less discount - surpassed their $100 limit. As the mom struggled to decide what to do, her heart breaking as she contemplated returning one or two items, her young son whispered, "Mommy, can I use the money that Grandma gave me for Chanukah last night, to pay the extra cost?" Mom approved and the boy shared his own gifts with a young man he had known for all of 35 minutes.I get tears in my eyes every time I recount this story because it seems so counter-cultural. As our consumer culture has enmeshed itself into the "holiday season," everything - from the media to the stores to the chatter on their text messages and PSP gaming conversations - seems to emphasize one message: that the holiday season is about buying, giving and getting - with heavy emphasis on the getting. And yet, whenever I participate in events like Childspree, I am profoundly touched by the way gemilut chasadim propels both the receivers or the doers away from this message.
I think about the pre-teens who didn't argue when mom informed them there would be no Chanukah presents tonight. I think about the child who readily shared his Chanukah gelt (money) with a boy he barely knew. These children are embracing the lessons we try to promulgate (inculcate) through our Or Ami Center for Tikkun Olam (social justice). They embodied the best of Jewish teaching about tzedakah: that we Jews give because it is tzedek, the just/right thing to do. They know that while it may feel good to give, providing meaning to our day and our lives, the essence of Jewish giving is justice. We do it because it is just the right thing to do.
Rising Up to Become our Better Selves
Today volunteers brought light and joy into the lives of 100 at-risk kids. Simultaneously they were inspired to rise up to become their better selves. The volunteers saw with their own eyes that the "disadvantaged" are just people who don't have what we have. The volunteers rediscovered how "fortunate" we really are. We learned that people "in need" or "at risk" are not really so different from themselves. Those were the biggest presents we all received today.
Most importantly, together we deepened the growing trust between our Congregation Or Ami and New Directions for Youth, a relationship which has the potential to transform so many lives.
It is time to delve deeper into Tikkun Olam. Let us be are inspired to explore further partnership projects designed to address the root needs of these at-risk youth: the need for mentoring, the need for inspiration, and the need to know that there is a bright world beyond in which their lives can be filled with hope and possibility.
The Light of Social Justice Shines Brightly
Childspree warmed the hearts of all the volunteers, from Congregation Or Ami and beyond. May the lights of Chanukah continue to transform each of us into lamplighters, ensuring that the light of tzedakah and gemilut chasadim shine brightly.
How does Childspree, or other hands-on social action projects, transform your understanding of your role in the world?