Hannukkah Lights Glow Brighter for Families

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Article Reprinted with permission from Chagrin Valley Times.

By Sue Hoffman

Park Synagogue Program and Volunteer Director Ellen Petler, left, and Associate Rabbi Sharon Marcus get ready to distribute Hanukkah gifts.

The eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, which begins this Sunday evening (Dec. 6) will be brighter for more than 80 families in financial need through a special program directed by the Jewish Federation of Cleveland.

Called "Chanukah in a Basket," the program brings new gifts to Jewish children and families identified by synagogues, Jewish day schools and agencies. The families are located mainly in Cleveland's eastern suburbs, including the Chagrin Valley.

"We were asked to choose families who would enjoy a little extra help with Hanukkah gifts," said Program and Volunteer Director Ellen Petler at Park Synagogue in Pepper Pike. "Rabbi Sharon Marcus and I went to the Federation's 'Hanukkah store' to pick out gifts.

"They had a wonderful array of different items, from books and toys and crafts to sporting goods, mittens and hats. We knew most of the kids and really thought about what gift each child might like."

Ms. Petler and Rabbi Marcus chose one gift for each child, ranging from baking sets and Star Wars walkie-talkies to Hanukkah puzzles and other toys. They also gave one present such as games to each family. They filled special Hanukkah shopping bags provided by the Federation with the gifts and gift wrap, and distributed them in time for the holiday.

"We know the families will appreciate it," said Ms. Petler, a resident of Orange who has worked at Park Synagogue for 27 years. "We're happy to give them a happier Hanukkah."

Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah, also called the Festival of Lights, with tradition and festivities. Children play with dreidels, which are tops with Hebrew letters. Candles are lighted on a menorah for eight nights with prayers and songs. Families also enjoy latkes - potato pancakes fried in oil - and exchange gifts as part of the celebration.

Hanukkah, the Hebrew word for "dedication," commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem following the Jewish Maccabees' victory over the Syrian-Greeks in 165 B.C.The holiday celebrates religious freedom and miracles. According to the Talmud, when the Jews recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, they found only enough oil to light the "everlasting light" for one day. They, however, needed eight days to prepare the oil for the holy light. A miracle occurred and the oil burned for eight days. The holiday begins on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev, which can occur from late November to late December.

As in past years, Chanukah in a Basket involved a dedicated shopping effort by volunteers, said Joanie Berger, chairwoman of the Federation's Jewish Volunteer Network.

"We put a call out for donations in a variety of ways," she said. "We have bins at the Jewish Federation for gifts so that anyone who came for a meeting could join in and donate."

Ms. Berger, of Shaker Heights, said she took her 15-year-old son along to help shop for gifts for teens. "I asked him, 'What would you want?'"

"The Jewish Federation has a concerted effort to proactively address community members in financial distress," Ms. Berger said. Chanukah in a Basket, she said, "is one example - and a festive one" - of the many Federation programs aimed to help them.

The economic vulnerability of many Jewish families came to light during the Jewish Federation's 2011 Greater Cleveland Jewish Population Study. According to the study, 36 percent of Greater Cleveland's Jewish households were 'just managing," and another 5 percent could not make ends meet.

Started about five years ago, Chanukah in a Basket underwent some changes this year."Previously, we had asked the synagogues, Jewish day schools and Jewish agencies to submit a request for gifts and include the ages of the children," Ms. Berger said. This year, instead of volunteers filling those requests, representatives came in to do the selection. "They know the kids and the families."

The changes "worked out beautifully," added Susan Hyman, JVN director. "The whole multi­purpose room was set up by our volunteers as a Hanukkah store." Well over 1,000 gifts were arranged on tables by age and categories. Many gift cards were also available for teenage recipients.

"When the representatives came in, it was easy for them," Ms. Hyman said. "Our volunteers helped them as personal shoppers."In another change from last year, the gifts will be delivered unwrapped to the parents, she said. "The parents will wrap the gifts so that they know what they're giving their children."

Ms. Hyman, who lives in Beachwood, said she plans to decorate and distribute more Hanukkah gift bins for the program next year to facilitate donations.

For more information on other Federation volunteer opportunities and programs, visit www.jewishcleveland.org.

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