Jewish agency answers call to help at Hanukkah

Be honest: When you think of “holiday” and “charity” at this time of year, the image that comes to mind is one of a red kettle and a decidedly Christian holiday, right?

But the yuletide season — and particularly this recession-stricken yuletide season of 2008 — is a time when charitable efforts of all stripes, and all religious denominations, hit full stride.

And that’s why the Jewish Family Service Agency is working to make this Hanukkah — which begins this evening — a bit more cheery for Jewish children and families in Southern Nevada.

Each Hanukkah season, the nonprofit agency collects items for its annual Hanukkah gift drive. Those items then are distributed as presents to those who are experiencing economic troubles.

The effort included a program through which donors were matched up with specific families. At least 65 families will be aided this year, said Danielle Pokroy, the agency’s program manager, up by about 30 from last year.

In addition, donors this year have contributed items that will be distributed in the form of Hanukkah gifts to local children.

Pokroy said that the agency offers similar programs in the valley for every major Jewish holiday. But, because of Hanukkah’s gift-giving nature, the charitable effort may mesh particularly well with the eight-day celebration of religious freedom and Jewish identity.

Hanukkah traces its roots to about 165 B.C.E. — before the common era, a designation Christians refer to as B.C. — when the Jewish people rededicated the temple in Jerusalem.

It’s “not a Jewish Christmas,” notes Rabbi Sanford Akselrad of Congregation Ner Tamid, but happens to occur at a similar time of year.

“This holiday never really had any gift-giving associations at all,” Akselrad added, although, as time passed, a custom developed of distributing Hanukkah gelt — small coins — to children.

“That was pretty much it. It was a very, very minor holiday,” Akselrad said.

Then, after World War II, and especially in the United States, “with the commercialization of Christmas came the commercialization of Hanukkah,” Akselrad said. “With the gelt came guilt, and Jewish parents felt a responsibility to make sure their Jewish kids did not feel left out, and the giving of gifts became a Hanukkah custom as well.”

Today, many families give out presents during Hanukkah’s eight days.

“It was really a borrowed custom,” Akselrad said. “But it has become so strong in American culture that, when we have our Hanukkah bazaars, we work in conjunction with Jewish Family Services to identify needy Jewish children so they’re not left out during this holiday season.”

And such efforts fit in nicely with the concept of tzedakah, which Akselrad noted often is said to mean “charity” but “is translated more literally as ‘righteousness’ — that it’s the right thing to do.”

That’s why Akselrad suggests that families wishing to celebrate Hanukkah put a few coins into a tzedakah box before lighting candles at the sabbath each week. Then, when Hanukkah arrives, the family can give the money to a charity.

“It’s a great way to make the holiday a bit more festive and focus not on what we are getting but on what we are giving,” Akselrad said.

This year, the Jewish Family Service Agency is seeing increased need throughout the valley, Pokroy noted.

Also this year, Pokroy has noticed that more and more wish lists from Southern Nevadans contain such down-to-earth items as food gift cards and even basic cleaning items.

“It’s scary when we get a call from a senior and they’re requesting food cards for a certain grocery store so they can buy groceries,” she said.

For more information about the charitable activities of the Jewish Family Service Agency, call 732-0304.

Contact reporter John Przybys at or 702-383-0280.

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