In November, I noticed a discussion in a Facebook group about holiday traditions and how to make the holidays more meaningful. Through this thread, I glimpsed into the lives of families who, each year, make a specific cookie recipe, take in the neighbourhood lights during a bundled walk on a brisk Canadian winter night, or even write poems about other family members in attendance at a holiday gathering. Not one respondent chimed in to discuss spending hours in line to get a coveted toy, electronic, or must-have item.
I’m not sure how it began, but, at some point, my husband Eytan and I turned the typical observance of Chanukah on its head and began to take the focus away from the material.
When I was a child, my parents would stack eight neatly wrapped presents on top of the washer and dryer, and it was up to me to decide which one to open first. But, as an adult, I had the good fortune to be able to buy what I needed, or even wanted. And requesting a gift from my spouse seemed silly as we share a bank account, so there really is no practical delineation between him or me buying that gift.
So, at some point, we decided to forego gifts altogether. Instead, after lighting candles, we make a donation each night to a different philanthropic cause. And I have never looked forward to Chanukah like I do with our new tradition – not even when there was a pile of presents to tempt me. In fact, this has become my favourite family tradition of all.
We’ve supported causes domestic and international in reach. We’ve donated to hyper-local needs in our own community such as funding a teacher’s request for supplies for a classroom in an underfunded district. We’ve also paid homage to issues close to our hearts, such as global hunger and child literacy; and we’ve helped fund memory-making experiences for families with a parent who has been diagnosed with late-stage cancer.
The gifts vary in size, and who we give to changes a bit each year based on new research or a newly sparked interest. In fact, the only problem we have is in narrowing down our list when there are so many worthy organizations.
Being new to Canada and Ottawa, this year, we have the opportunity to learn more about our new home and to find causes here that most speak to us. If you have any particular suggestions, we’d love to hear them. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
More importantly, I invite you to join us in changing the conversation from “What did you get?” to “Where did you give?” Can you set aside one night to give instead of receive? Or even make a donation after opening presents? Can you keep a few gift cards to Tim Hortons and Loblaws in your car to give to those we pass each day who are in need of kindness?
Engage your children in choosing where to donate. What’s important to them? Talk about the privileges they have that they may want to share with others – such as camp scholarships or sports and arts programs. Talk to your parents and grandparents about causes they’ve supported – perhaps they were sponsored by Jewish Immigrant Aid Society or another agency in their arrival to this country. Maybe you want to support veteran projects, or the Humane Society, or the targeted fundraising efforts of a family looking to adopt a child. The options are endless. Eytan and I believe we each have a responsibility to provide support for causes that speak to our beliefs and ideals, and I hope you’ll join us in these efforts during your Chanukah celebrations.
Imagine the impact we can have if we each gifted just $10 toward a cause during this season of inherent good and potential excess.
If you do give during Chanukah, please don’t keep it to yourself. I’d love to hear where you gave, and, if you feel like sharing, why you chose that cause.
And, for those of you wondering, we don’t even buy a gift for our son Boaz. This is partially because he gets so many items from family that he doesn’t need one more thing from us, and also because he’s so young that he doesn’t know what we’re “supposed” to do. I realize that, as he gets older, we will likely spring for a special item he will no doubt long for, but I hope we are able to help him see how very fortunate he is all the year round, and Chanukah is a chance to give to others.
Staci Zemlak-Kenter moved to Ottawa in July with her husband, Rabbi Eytan Kenter of Kehillat Beth Israel, and their son, Boaz.