For Chanukah, A Gift Of Empathy


When you have young children, the materialism of Chanukah can be overwhelming. No matter how hard you try, it seems impossible to fight: You and your extended family members want to buy your kids gifts, and you know your kids want them. The weeks leading up to the holiday — and there were extra ones this year because Chanukah is late on the Western calendar— can feel like a dizzying search for gift ideas. It’s difficult with older kids, too, I know, but at least then they might understand when you try to educate them about what’s really important.

That’s why I’m grateful my family is part of a new social-action initiative at our local synagogue, Congregation Beth Elohim, in Brooklyn. The goal: provide hands-on tikkun olam projects to kids ages 4-7. On Sunday, more than 80 people — young kids and their families — gathered at Beth Elohim for our latest project. The synagogue’s ballroom buzzed as we wrapped presents requested by children through a program run by the Bronx Defenders and created Chanukah gift bags for local seniors. Because young children learn best from hands-on opportunities, there was little discussion of tikkun olam; we left that to each individual family to handle.

Hands-on projects like this are effective ways to involve young kids in social-action projects, says Dr. Adam Brown, a clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. Involving children in the entire process makes the experience more tangible and helps drives home the lesson that “other children have different experiences than you do,” Brown says.

My favorite event that the social action group sponsored so far was one we did earlier this year, participating in the Refugee Child Hope Box, a project to help international refugee children. The goal was to do something concrete for the refugees, but we found that as a happy byproduct, it illustrated lessons of giving in a vivid way for our two boys, who are 4 and 6.

The project is the brainchild of a California-based group called Operation Refugee Child. The idea is simple: Volunteers fill small boxes with items for kids — from toothpaste to toys — and then send them to the group, which delivers them via backpacks to refugee families. So far this year, Operation Refugee Child says it has delivered more than 10,000 backpacks to refugee families, mainly Syrian, currently living in Greece.

We first sketched out the refugee problem to our boys, explaining that these families had to leave Syria and go somewhere else to be safe.

Both of our kids were enthusiastic about the idea of helping these families, and brainstormed enough items to fill six boxes — Operation Refugee Child provides suggested lists of items, divided by the refugees’ ages. Our 6-year-old accompanied my wife to the store, the suggested lists in hand. (It’s hard for a child to be completely altruistic when looking at toys in Target, so my wife offered a compromise: Our son could pick out a small item for himself and something for his brother, but the other items were going to the refugee children. He readily agreed.)

We filled several boxes, decorated them and took them to Beth Elohim. Our 6-year-old wrote a note expressing wishes that the refugees would find a home soon; our 4-year-old did the same, although it was a bit harder to read. My wife filled more boxes with the excited, albeit chaotic, participation of kids in our 4-year-old’s preschool class.

With other families participating as well, our congregation shipped more than 500 shoeboxes full of items to Operation Refugee Child.

We know the Hope Box experience by itself won’t transform our kids overnight, but it allows them to turn words of gratitude and compassion into action. And of course one doesn’t have to look across the ocean to make a difference: Children can help buy holiday gifts or fill backpacks for homeless children in towns and cities all across America. Many organizations, such as New York Cares and Repair the World NYC, also run social-action programs where families of young children can help others.

“Teaching empathy, which doesn’t come naturally at this age, is important,” Brown says. “Children see it’s important to their parent, so it becomes important to them.”

There’s no better lesson we can teach our young children at Chanukah — or any other time of the year. 

Peter Ephross, a longtime editor at JTA, lives in Brooklyn. He is the editor of “Jewish Major Leaguers in Their Own Words: Oral Histories of 23 Players” (McFarland).