December 22, 2014 · 30 Kislev

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Sustaining the Light
Chanukah and Economic Justice

Chanukah has traditionally been a time of giving gifts and/or gelt to children. In Eastern Europe, teachers would let the children out of school early to enjoy their small bit of pocket money and have some time off during the holiday. This tradition of gift giving and receiving has magnified over the years. Nowadays it’s not uncommon for families to give ever larger presents each night of the holiday.

This emphasis on lavish gifts is a product of our interaction with modern North American culture, a culture in which the “Holiday Shopping Season” has grown longer each year. As our ancestors wrestled with the extent to which they should allow Greek culture to influence their lives, North American Jews wrestle with the extent to which we should allow secular culture to influence our lives. This culture of commercialism undermines the true meaning of our celebration. Even many Christian leaders bemoan the loss of a meaningful Christmas that gets overshadowed by an emphasis on gifts.

Chanukah can be a time to reexamine what we consider to be a gift and how we go about giving and receiving gifts. Many of those in our congregations are blessed with enough to eat, a warm roof over their heads, an opportunity for education and sufficient clothing. If we look around, we see that these are truly great gifts:

  • In 2009, 44 million Americans lived below the poverty line.
  • 49.1 million Americans lived in food-insecure households in 2008.
  • 925 million people worldwide are hungry.
  • 14.8 million Americans are currently unemployed.
  • In 2008, 9 million children died before they reached their fifth birthday, and every day, 16,000 children die from hunger related causes.
  • One in twenty American Jewish families live below the poverty line.

This Chanukah, and throughout the year, we can use our riches to ensure the wellbeing of all of God’s children. We can become excited not only about the great gifts we’ll receive, but also about the ways we can use our blessings and our gifts – by making monetary donations, material donations, volunteering, and participating in advocacy– to ensure the well-being of all of our brothers and sisters.

Program Ideas on Economic Justice

Ner Shel Tzedakah
Ner Shel Tzedakah (“Candle of Righteousness”) is a project in which families and individuals devote the 6th night of Chanukah to learning about the problem of poverty. They donate the value of the gifts (or the gifts themselves) that they would otherwise exchange on that night to organizations that assist the poor. By making donations on the sixth night of Chanukah, individuals will help the candle of righteousness glow brightly for those in need. More information.

There are many ways to incorporate Ner Shel Tzedakah into your Chanukah practice. The following ideas can help you get started:

Donate Your ‘Gelt’
On the sixth night of Chanukah, gather as a family to discuss ways to donate the value of your Chanukah presents. In particular, in lieu of giving Chanukah gifts, you might think about making donations in honor of your friends and family to help poor families keep the heat on during the cold winter months.

Light One Candle
Congregants at Congregation Shir Tikvah, of Troy, MI, provide Chanukah gifts to less fortunate children, seniors and homeless adults in their community in a very personal way. Participants pick one or more candles from a large cardboard menorah, each listing the gender and age of one recipient. (Other congregations, such as Temple Shalom of Louisville, KY, place these cards on top of an actual chanukiyah). They then purchase a gift for the selected person. The gifts are then collected and delivered.

Winter Warm-Up Clothing Drive
Have a collection box in which congregants can place new or lightly worn hats, gloves, coats, boots and scarves. These can then be collected and donated to a local shelter. As one aspect of your Chanukah celebration, this project can remind the community to engage in social action during the holiday.

Winter Warm-Up Knitting and Crocheting Drive
In December 2004, students at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion made and collected over 100 hand-knit and crochet hats as gifts for the guests at their in-house Soup Kitchen. A similar program could involve teenagers, seniors, the Sisterhood or anyone who loves crafts.

Religious School Gift Drive
Port Jewish Center, in Port Washington, New York sponsors a gift drive through the religious school. Noting that we each will be receiving presents, children are taught about our responsibility to share with those who might not be receiving presents. Each class is responsible for bringing in an item such as candies, lotions, magazines, sweaters, stuffed animals and other small items, which are collected into gift bags. A local bookstore donates plain brown bags, which are decorated by the K-1 class. Half of the bags are delivered to a nursing home by the fourth grade class, which studies life cycle. The class also sings some Chanukah songs with the residents. The other bags are donated to a local AIDS program.

Mitzvah Mall
Invite poverty-related organizations to set up tables at a religious school Mitzvah Mall. During religious school, students visit the Mall, learn about the organizations and allocate their tzedakah money (as individuals or as a class). This activity could also be done with adults, or as a community-wide project. Contributions can be made in honor or in memory of friends and family and given as Chanukah gifts on the sixth night. At some Mitzvah Malls participants receive Chanukah cards to give to family and friends in exchange for their donations.

Tzedakah Gift Shop
Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, NJ runs a Tzedakah Gift Shop in conjunction with the Sisterhood Chanukah gift shop. A display of eight colorful tubes (set up to look like candles), each of which bears the name of a charity or project, is placed in the lobby. In front of each candle is a stack of colorful description cards describing the work of the particular organization. As people shop for their Chanukah presents, they can donate money in these candle-shaped tzedakah boxes, and they are encouraged to use these donations in lieu of gifts (hence the colorful description cards). The Tzedakah Gift Shop remains in the synagogue lobby throughout Chanukah (with regular removals of cash).

Judaica for World Jewry
Collect new Judaica items to send to the World Union for Progressive Judaism to donate to developing progressive Jewish congregations around the world. Contact the WUPJ at (212) 452-6530 to find out which items are most in demand.

Make a Mitzvah Catalog
The youth group, confirmation class, social action committee or other synagogue group could compile a catalog of a variety of tzedakah organizations that need funding, donations or volunteers. This catalog could then be distributed to temple members, who could use it to find donations for family and friends.

Kindle the Light of Social Justice as You Kindle the Lights of Chanukah
MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, encourages us to meditate upon eight social justice concepts during the eight nights of Chanukah. Its website explains:

Jews are linked to the Maccabees not just through common bloodlines, but through common purpose. While they found the courage to stand their ground and speak their minds, we continue to raise our voices against injustice. And while they discovered in oil a miracle of hope, we strive to bring this miracle to people who are most in need. Millions of Americans – each of them Maccabees, each of them struggling for their future – go hungry every day. With your help, food will be their oil, their fuel and faith on the path to a brighter tomorrow.

Visit MAZON’s holiday website to download (as a PDF) these meditations that you can use during a home, school or synagogue Chanukah celebration.

Make Our Tzedakah Grow
Congregation Or Ami, of Calabasas, CA, initiated this program to “transform Chanukah from a holiday of getting presents into a festival of giving tzedakah.” At the community Chanukah service, the rabbi hands $100 to 4-6 randomly chosen congregants and challenges them to use this money as a vehicle for tikkun olam. They are not allowed to donate the money back to the synagogue, and they are asked to let the congregation know how the money was spent.

Incorporate Tzedakah into Chanukah Parties
Give three percent of the cost of your Chanukah party to MAZON: A Jewish response to Hunger.

Collect funds and items for Ner Shel Tzedakah at the party.

Letter-writing Campaign
Ask guests to write letters about pertinent social action issue during the party. For instance, write letters to corporations about sweatshop labor or to elected officials about anti-poverty initiatives.

Become part of an “Out of the Cold Coalition” or Interfaith Hospitality Housing Network
As we kindle the Chanukah lights, we think about those who lack a warm place to stay during the winter. Many congregations help the homeless find a warm place to sleep by partnering with interfaith “Out of the Cold” coalitions. As a member of these coalitions, congregations take turns providing shelter for homeless men, women or families during the winter months. Often, participating congregations host guests for one-week periods. By bringing the homeless poor into our homes, we can bring light to others and raise awareness about the long-term causes and effects of hunger and homelessness.

Provide a Hot Meal to Those in Need
Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel of Elkins Park, PA planned a Chanukah Dinner for residents of the Federation Housing Buildings in NE Philadelphia. Dinner was cooked and served by volunteers from the congregation, including the confirmation class, to approximately 250-300 guests, regardless of religion or nationality. One congregant hosted at each table and the synagogue provided professional entertainment during the meal. The congregation also provided buses to pick up all of the invited residents.

Take Action on Slavery, Child Labor and Sweatshops
The most dramatic ways in which global poverty manifests itself are through slavery, child labor and sweatshops. Over 27 million people are enslaved today, which is more than those who were enslaved in all 400 years of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. Many of the world’s poor, including children, are forced to labor in sweatshops or on farms for minimal or no wages. They work long hours in unsafe conditions, are barred from organizing and lack access to medical care. Workers commonly face verbal and physical abuse and intimidation to keep them from speaking out, fearing job loss or deportation. During Chanukah as we read Al HaNisim, a prayer giving thanks for our freedoms, we can take steps to ensure the basic human rights of those around the world.

Give Gifts that Promote Fair Working Conditions
Give gifts that promote fair conditions for the working poor around the world. Many of the products we buy – from coffee to chocolate, from carpets to clothing – are made by people forced to work in sweatshops, whether in factories or on farms. As we purchase gifts for family and friends this Chanukah, we can support those who are working to end sweatshop labor and take action to ensure fair working conditions for everyone by purchasing Fair Trade products. To learn more about Fair Trade and to find out where and how to purchase Fair Trade gifts for your loved ones this Chanukah, click here.

Conduct a Fair Trade Coffee Fundraiser
High school students at Temple Kol Ami in White Plains, New York, sold Fair Trade coffee at the temple’s Chanukah boutique and stocked their booth with informational material about the importance of Fair Trade. Through this program, students provided a way for members of the community to purchase fairly traded gifts for Chanukah, educated the community about Fair Trade and raised over $500 towards their service mission to El Salvador with the American Jewish World Service. You can purchase wholesale Fair Trade coffee, tea and chocolate and find informational materials at the Interfaith Coffee Program of Equal Exchange.

Raise Awareness About Sweatshop Labor
In this season of shopping, instead of spending a day at the mall buying gifts, pursue justice instead. Let store managers and retail companies know that their customers are concerned about sweatshops, and encourage them to sell sweatshop-free products. Divide into small groups to visit different stores. Ask the manager challenging questions to raise awareness about this hidden issue. You may wish to write a letter explaining your youth group’s opposition to sweatshop labor to give to the manager during your conversation. For more information, head to and

Invite an Escaped Slave or Abolitionist to Speak to Your Community
This is one of the most effective ways to inform congregants about modern day slavery. Consider including a text study, informational materials, fundraising and/or a letter writing campaign as part of the event. has a list of speakers you can invite to your community.

Make sure Program ‘Giveaways’ are Sweatshop Free
Research the companies you use for ‘giveaways.’ Try to find sweatshop-free companies instead of hiring the cheapest company for your T-shirts, hats and other gifts that are given out at retreats, Mitzvah Days and other programs. Begin your search for union made items at, or

Resources on Slavery, Child Labor, and Sweatshops

  • “They Urgently Depend on It: Sweatshops, Raising Awareness in Congregations” from the RAC (scroll down to “Sweatshops”)
  • Visit the RAC Issues pages for Fair Trade, child soldiers, labor relations, human rights, sexual trafficking, Sudan and many others. Go to our homepage and click on the “Issues” section.
  • has information on global slavery, information sheets and advocacy resources.
  • Free the Children provides a full discussion of child labor.
  • During 2004-5, NFTY’s social action theme was slavery and trafficking. Its issues page has links to many helpful resources.
  • No Sweat, Co-op America’s campaign to end sweatshop labor.

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