Hanukkah came early for Robbie Gurolnick and her twin brother David this year.
The 11-year-olds and four friends spread gumballs, fleece blankets, hand lotion and jewelry and other gifts across the kitchen table in their Hawthorn Woods home. Each compared and traded items before wrapping them up in snowmen-printed wrapping paper.
But the gifts aren’t for the Gurolnicks—and they’re not for their guests, either. Instead, the fifth-graders and their dads packed the presents into shoeboxes to donate to less fortunate children in the Chicago area. "We get to wrap them and decorate them and have a lot of fun with them," says Robbie, who was preparing a gift for a 6-year-old girl named Amy. "I’m going to try to find some really awesome stickers to put on there."
The Gurolnicks are part of the Me & My Dad program through their local Jewish Community Center, which groups together fathers and children for monthly meetings that can often involve charity projects. And these families aren’t alone. Giving back, especially during celebrations like this holiday season, is an important part of being Jewish, says Michelle Greenberg, a rabbi at Temple Jeremiah in Northfield. "Anytime we’re celebrating and enjoying our blessings, we have an obligation embedded in our tradition that we care for others," Greenberg says. "Not only do we have the responsibility, but we have the privilege to take action and make the world better."
This sense of privilege and responsibility is exactly what drives the group to organize events like the holiday shoebox project, says Arnie Brown, of Buffalo Grove, who attends meetings with his daughter, Jennifer, 10. "It’s just good for the kids to appreciate what they have and see what’s out there," he says. "Our kids are receiving gifts for Hanukkah and there’s other kids out there who aren’t."
Like Brown, many families see the holiday season as a perfect opportunity to incorporate tikkun olam, Hebrew for acts that repair the world. Last Hanukkah, for instance, Jodie Berkman, of Highland Park, took her then 11-year-old daughter to a lunch for Holocaust survivors. They served food, danced and socialized with the guests, finding a way to combine the joy of the holiday season with the needs of the community.
This year, Berkman, who chairs the Tikkun Olam Volunteer Network of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, will ask her kids to give up one of their eight nights of Hanukkah for children in need. Instead, their family will go shopping together for local kids, donating the gifts to a local chapter of The Arc, an organization for people with disabilities. "Every child is entitled to Hanukkah gifts and this just makes it a little bit more meaningful," says Berkman, whose family will also collect and wrap gifts one night. "Giving back to our community is just so much a part of what we want to instill in our children."
Another way local children connect to each other during times of celebration is through charity projects in schools.
At Cheder Lubavitch Hebrew Day School in Skokie, for instance, the fourth-grade class does a Hanukkah mitzvah project each year, says Rabbi Avraham Varnai, who teaches the class. Last year, he and his students built a menorah entirely of canned goods for donation to a local charity. This Hanukkah, Varnai plans to make a 7-foot-tall menorah out of plastic tubing, which students will fill with pennies. Varnai says he expects his seven students to collect at least 100,000 pennies from family and friends, which they will then donate to an organization benefiting terminally ill children at the end of the holiday. "When the kids see that we have a big goal, then they’re going to work hard," Varnai says. "The kids are going to give back to fellow children who are in desperate need of love and care."
For some families, remembering those in need can be a year-long effort leading up to the holidays. Laura Perez and her family, of Highland Park, for instance, spent the months before her son, Benji, 13, had his Bar Mitzvah working on a charity project to correspond with their celebration. The family became part of the Tents of Hope Project, a one-year mission in response to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. Participants bought and decorated the tent, to be used as classrooms for the refugees, Perez says.
Benji’s Bar Mitzvah invitations also came with small bags for families to collect loose change before the party in October, which they dubbed "cents for tents." In November, the family officially donated the brightly painted tent and money to Tents of Hope. "Able-bodied people can do something besides just eat and have a party," Perez says of combining her son’s Bar Mitzvah with a broader message of charity. "It’s not difficult to do things for others. Even the littlest things can make a big difference."
And sometimes the best ideas for giving back come from the children themselves. At the Gurolnicks’ home, for instance, the Me & My Dad participants wrote personalized notes for the recipients. Robbie and David’s dad, Rick Gurolnick, took digital photos of each child and printed them out to stick in each box.
"It makes me feel happy when I do something good for someone," Robbie says.
When the last Hanukkah candle is lit at the end of December, it doesn’t mean their Jewish giving will end. A few meetings ago, the kids and dads pitched in to buy a duck at Build-a-Bear to collect tzedakah, which is a charitable contribution. At the end of each meeting, the girls pass it around, adding change and small bills to a small purse over the duck’s shoulder to donate to a local cause. And next month, their meeting will take the group to a local senior center to perform a talent show and play Bingo with the residents.
"This year there’s going to be a big change," says Rick Gurolnick of taking the group beyond Hanukkah. "You try to make that transition from, ‘Oh, I want this,’ to ‘Oh, they would want this.’ "
Laura Schocker is a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She is a former Chicago Parent intern.