The families’ stories are heart breaking; the mother is disabled, the father suffered a massive stroke and they are struggling to provide for their triplet teenagers. Because of the hardships they face, many families cannot celebrate Hanukkah. That is why Congregation Beth Shalom “adopts” families in need during the holiday.
Each Hanukkah season, Congregation Beth Shalom collects donations from members. The donations are later given to families in need, families identified by Jewish Family Service, an agency dedicated to helping poor or disadvantaged Jewish families.
Congregation Beth Shalom has adopted families in need during Hanukkah for the past 5 years. Several years ago they worked to help Jewish families in need identified by Single Mother’s Outreach in the Santa Clarita Valley. The last three years the congregation has worked with Jewish Family Service.
“We are really passionate about giving back to the community,” explained Yael Gendein, Tikkun Olam, a Jewish title that means “repairing the world” and designates her as the outreach coordinator for the synagogue. “Many of us in this valley are very blessed with all we have. You don’t realize how much you have until you meet or hear about families like this and realize things aren’t that bad for yourself.”
This year the congregation adopted 8 families with various backgrounds, family status, and levels of need throughout the greater Los Angeles area.
One family, identifying information always withheld, was a struggling refugee family with two teenage children. Another family, an abused, divorced mother of four needing help to get back on their feet.
Each year, for nearly two months, members of Congregation Beth Shalom donate items, Legos for the children, new clothes, new shoes, gift cards, and even gift cards to grocery stores for food. Each family will receive between $150 to $200 worth of donations, all an effort to offer struggling Jewish families a way to celebrate the Hanukkah holiday.
“We want them to know the Jewish community cares about them and give them Hanukkah gifts to celebrate the holiday,” said Gendein. “They don’t have to be a member of our synagogue for us to let them know we care about them and want to help during this time.”
Last year, Gendein explained when her husband delivered the items to Jewish Family Service their car was packed full of donated items, with little room to spare. The congregation looks forward to helping others and begins asking about the families in October in anticipation of the gift drive.
“People want to help, but they often don’t know how or what to do,” said Gendein. “If I can help coordinate that effort and make it easier than I will. Giving back is just really important to me.”
Community outreach and helping others is important for Jews during Hanukkah. As Jews they are called to complete mitzvahs, or good deeds, during Hanukkah. Mark Blazer, Rabbi of Temple Beth Ami calls on his congregation to complete one mitzvah for each night of Hanukkah.
Members of Temple Beth Ami often volunteer during Hanukkah by helping with Family Promise, an organization that offers homeless families in Santa Clarita a place to stay, food, job services and counseling during their transition.
“Family Promise is one of the better interfaith projects in Santa Clarita,” said Blazer. “Churches often have their hands full during Christmas, so we volunteer to host the families during the week of Christmas.”
This year, Hanukkah and Christmas fell at the same time. It gave Jewish families an opportunity to help homeless families during Christmas, while also giving back and completing mitzvahs during Hanukkah.
Mike Spalter and his family help with Family Promise several times throughout the year. Last week they volunteered as evening hosts for the families. They provided dinner, helped the children with homework, and chatted with the parents.
“We own an entertainment company so we brought a video game truck for them to have to themselves, it was a lot of fun,” said Spalter. “We really just wanted to be there to help and make their day better.”
Chris Vila and his family also helped with Family Promise last week by hosting the families for one night at the synagogue.
“In our community, many of us have enough to help take care of those that need help,” said Vila. “This is a concrete way for us as a temple or individuals to make something more of our lives.”
Spalter explained their family loves to donate their time to help others and especially giving to others in need during the holidays.
“We definitely increase the amount of giving we do during Hanukkah,” said Spalter. “Family Promise is such a great way to help. The program is getting families back on the right track, offering job skills, helping them find homes, and a safe place to stay in the interim.”