Stuff your Thanksgiving with social justice! Just as we have adopted many American and Canadian customs as our own, we have the ability to bring our Jewish values and rituals into our secular holiday observances - including Thanksgiving. Add an additional layer to Thanksgiving by incorporating acts of tikkun olam into your celebration.
As we sit down with our family and friends at the Thanksgiving table and offer thanks for the bounty that is ours, we often forget about the thousands of people in America, Canada and around the world who do not share our prosperity. While we gorge ourselves on turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and pumpkin pie, others do not even have the bare necessities to sustain themselves and their families. Jewish tradition teaches us that we are required to feed the hungry. Instead of celebrating this holiday in our own insular family units, Thanksgiving is a perfect time to reach out to the community and serve those who are most in need.
Jewish Texts and Values
- If there is among you a poor person, one of your kin, in any of your towns within your land which God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against them, but you shall open your hand to them, and lend them sufficient for their needs, whatever they may be. Deuteronomy 15:7-8
- This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh. Isaiah 58:7-8
- When you are asked in the world to come, "What was your work?" and you answer: "I fed the hungry," you will be told: "This is the gate of the Eternal, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry. Midrash Psalms 18:17
- When you give food to a hungry person, give your best and sweetest food. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Mizbayach 7:11
- Hunger is isolating; it may not and cannot be experienced vicariously. He who never felt hunger can never know its real effects, both tangible and intangible. Hunger defies imagination; it even defies memory. Hunger is felt only in the present. Elie Wiesel
- Visit our Social Action Program Bank for great programs on addressing hunger including Alphabetical Food Drives, turkey give-aways, hunger banquets and more.
- RAC Hunger Advocacy Issue Page
- Hunger No More - Produced by the RAC and Mazon: Jewish Response to Hunger, this guide provides resources for community-wide learning for both adults and children on the issue of hunger.
- MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger - Takes action to end hunger in the United States and around the world. Great resources for communities and individuals alike.
- The Hunger Site - For every visit to this site, you can make a donation of one meal to someone in need. It doesn't cost anything but a few seconds.
- America's Second Harvest - Network of food banks and food-rescue programs. Find a local food back where you can volunteer with your congregation or youth group or drop off the collections from a food drive.
- Hazon - Helping create healthy and sustainable communities in the Jewish world and beyond through CSAs, educational programs and more.
- USDA Food Nutrition Service Online - Information on U.S. government programs designed to help fight hunger through improved food distribution.
- Food Resource and Action Center- Information on hunger, especially food stamp advocacy and issues.
Since coming to North America, the Jewish community has reached out to other religious groups in order to make Thanksgiving an inter-faith day of worship, dialogue, and celebration. Even though Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, the day is filled with religious overtures that are not specific to any religious tradition. Thanksgiving is a holiday that almost all Americans observe and many wish to make religious connections to this celebration. Through inter-faith prayer services, text study, or dialogue, the Jewish community can reach out to the Muslim, Christian and other faith communities to create a day of religious tolerance and celebration. On this day of Thanksgiving, we can thank God for the abundance of food by bringing together our various religious traditions.
Jewish Texts and Values
Human beings are beloved, for people were created in the image of God. People are exceedingly beloved for it was made known to them that they were created in the Image, as it is written, 'For human beings were made in the image of God.' (Genesis 9:6) (Pirke Avot 3:17)
This is a favorite saying from Abaye: A gentle reply turns away wrath, and one should increase peace with one's brothers, with one's relatives, and with every person -- even with a non-Jew in the market -- in order that one shall be beloved above and desirable below, and that one shall be accepted by all people. (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 17a)
They said this about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: That no one ever greeted him first -- even a non-Jew in the market. (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 17a)
- Visit our Social Action Program Bank for great programs on addressing hunger including Synagogue-Church Partnerships, Pulpit Exchanges and more.
Thanksgiving Prayers and Readings
Celebrate your Thanksgiving meal with people of different faiths or ethnicity, recognizing that this celebration is something we share in common. Offer prayers of thankfulness and consider our relationships with other faith and ethnic groups. Sample readings and prayers:
Eternal God, we give thanks
For the gifts of life, wonder beyond words;
For the awareness of soul, our light within;
For the world around us, so filled with beauty;
For the richness of the earth, which day by day sustains us;
For all these and more we offer thanks.
Baruch Atah Adonai, hatov shimcha ul'cha na-eh l'hodot.
Blessed are You, Eternal, Your Name is goodness,
and to You we offer thanksgiving.
(Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams)
Watch over me,
Hold your hand before me in protection.
Stand guard for me, speak in defense of me.
As I speak for You, speak for me.
As You speak for me, so will I speak for You.
May it be beautiful before me,
May it be beautiful behind me,
May it be beautiful above me,
May it be beautiful all around me.
Restore me in beauty.
(Traditional Navajo Prayer, translated by Gladys A. Reichard)
For the good in us, which calls us to a better life,
We give thanks.
For the strength to improve the world with our hearts and our hand,
We offer praise.
For the desire in us which leads us to work for peace,
We are grateful.
For life and nature, harmony and beauty, for the hope of tomorrow,
All praise to the Source of Being.
(Adapted from the words of Chaim Stern and Abraham Rothberg, Gates of Prayer, 1975 p. 271)
We give thanks by remembering our freedom...
We are thankful for the freedom from hunger.
We are thankful for the freedom to worship.
We are thankful for the freedom to challenge our minds.
We are thankful for the freedom to chart our lives.
We are thankful for the freedom to work for a better world.
We are thankful for the freedom to celebrate this day.
We pray for our country, for the men and women who today are protecting our freedom, and for the day when this nation and the entire world will know peace.
(America's Table - A Thanksgiving Haggadah, The American Jewish Committee)
Earth, Teach Me
Earth teach me quiet - as the grasses are still with new light.
Earth teach me suffering - as old stones suffer with memory.
Earth teach me humility - as blossoms are humble with beginning.
Earth teach me caring - as mothers nurture their young.
Earth teach me courage - as the tree that stands alone.
Earth teach me limitation - as the ant that crawls on the ground.
Earth teach me freedom - as the eagle that soars in the sky.
Earth teach me acceptance - as the leaves that die each fall.
Earth teach me renewal - as the seed that rises in the spring.
Earth teach me to forget myself - as melted snow forgets its life.
Earth teach me to remember kindness - as dry fields weep with rain.
--An Ute Prayer (cited in Return to Earth Project Study Guide)
Native American and Jewish Relations
The legend of the Thanksgiving story is known by every American and is retold from generation to generation. Although the American Indians are a central part of the Thanksgiving lore, our relationship with Native Americans, or First Nations, is minimal. We know the Thanksgiving story, but we know very little about indigenous heritage, culture, or history. Few know of the atrocities inflicted upon native populations that resulting in diminishing their population by 90% -- from a high of about ten million in 1492 to a low of 250,000 at the beginning of the 20th Century (now back up to about four million). Jews and American Indians have much in common, including concerns regarding religious rights, assimilation, and the challenge of maintaining our own national languages and culture while being a part of American society. Thanksgiving can be a time that reminds us of the common challenges that Jews and Native Americans share. It gives us an opportunity to learn about each other today, rather than relying on legends of the past.
Although it might seem that the day of Thanksgiving is the perfect time to create new relationships with Native Americans, we should realize that Thanksgiving is a sensitive time for this community and, rather than a celebration, is for them a reminder of the long history of atrocities, persecutions, and discrimination forced upon their ancestors. Many Native Americans may feel that the rest of American society only wishes to meet with them during the time of Thanksgiving rather than year-round. Let the holiday be a catalyst to start new programs with the First Nations and Native Americans, but not as the only time that we wish to connect with them.
Jewish Texts and Values
The quotations below attempt to show similar challenges and traditions that Native American Indians and Jews share. The quotation from Leviticus 19:18 specifically speaks about kinsfolk [i.e. Israelite people]. However, it is worthwhile to compare this quotation with the Native American proverb to understand similar traditions that both cultures share.
- You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Eternal. Leviticus 19:18
- Do not wrong or hate your neighbor for it is not he that you wrong but yourself. Native American Proverb, Pima
- It's hard being an Indian. You have to live three lives - the traditional one, the survival one, and the modern world that keeps coming at you all the time. Rose Albert, member of the Taos Pueblo, 1986
- There is no greater sin than to cause one's nation to disappear from the world. Levinsohn, Zerubabel, 1853
- Be a Jew in your tent, and a man outside. J.L. Gordon, 1863
- Thanksgiving Meal Prayers and Readings: During your Thanksgiving meal, offer Thanksgiving prayers or readings, including those that come from indigenous traditions. See samples above.
- Visit a Native American Museum
- Dialogue, Discussions, Concerts: The Native American and Jewish communities have much in common. By creating a dialogue series, the two communities could begin speaking about similar issues that affect both groups. Topics might include assimilation, religious rights, Holocaust/genocide, cultural survival or education. By beginning these dialogue sessions, Jews and American Indians can learn and work together to create a vibrant future for each community.
- Jewish-First Nation Response to Homelessness: Temple Sinai Congregation (Toronto, Ontario) has a partnership with Na Me Res, a First Nations/Native Canadian organization that has reached out to thousands of Toronto's homeless and saved many lives. Through this partnership, the congregation helps staff and support a Street Help Van for one night a week. The program teaches life skills, restores dignity, and offers friendship and caring to those who need it most. Although this is primarily a program about homelessness, this partnership has helped nurture the relationship between the Jewish and First Nations communities.
- National Museum of the American Indian - On the Education tab of this site there is educational material about the Native American communities for both adults and children. Particularly, there is a handout called "The Thanksgiving Study Guide," as well as the history of different Native American tribes.
- Indigenous Geography - This site of the Smithsonian Institution includes educational resources about the Native American communities of the Western Hemisphere today. It includes lesson plans for 4-8th grade and 9-12th grade, has resources about the indigenous way of life, and includes the contemporary issues that affect the indigenous people today.