National Jewish Heritage Month.

Israel 60 yearsFounded in 1948, Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) marks the establishment of the State of Israel. The Israeli Knesset (Parliament) declared that the preceding day be Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, for those who lost their lives defending the State of Israel while serving in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Jewish holidays last for 24 hours, from sundown to sundown, which means that Israeli Independence Day begins the moment Memorial Day ends.

While on a gap year program between high school and college, I was fortunate to experience the transition from Yom Hazikaron to Yom Ha’atzmaut firsthand in Israel. Transitioning from a somber day to a day of celebration may seem a bit strange or perhaps difficult, but I found it be one of the most moving and emotional days of my year. I went from feeling profound, inexplicable sadness to smiling and dancing hand-in-hand with my favorite people.

An excerpt from my May 7, 2008 journal:

As of sundown the previous night it was Yom Hazikaron. From the moment the sun set, I knew the day was going to be different. The world just seemed quieter. I awoke early in my apartment and went to meet the rest of my friends attending a memorial at a huge cemetery. Even though I am an American, my only friends and family who’ve served in the military have served in the IDF. I have been fortunate to never lose a friend or family member in the active line of duty. In the United States I have never visited a cemetery or been to a memorial on Memorial Day. In fact, modern day Memorial Day is typically spent outside with family and friends enjoying the sunshine. In Israel the day felt different. Every citizen is deeply affected by Memorial Day because every citizen serves in the IDF.

This year, we were attending a tekes (ceremony) and going to hear the siren along with hundreds of people. On Yom Hazikaron, the nationwide siren is sounded twice throughout the country, during which the entire nation observes a moment of silence. All traffic, all speaking, and all movement stops. For exactly two minutes the entire country falls still and everyone is silent. In that moment we were all one — our minds and our hearts all thinking the same thoughts — of those who sacrificed their lives and independence so we can have ours.

The rest of the afternoon was spent listening to speakers, watching films, and hearing stories about different people, both Israelis and other nationalities, who gave their lives for Israel. By the end of the day we were emotionally exhausted. I returned to my apartment with a couple of friends uninterested in the celebration that we were to be attending in a matter of hours. We sat on our rooftop looking over the neighborhood and reflected on the day, the people we met, and the stories we heard. Come sundown everything changed and a new day began. We once again fell silent and that’s when we heard the fireworks.

It was as if the world had shifted. The sky lit up and people began cheering. A different energy filled the air and I could not help but feel excited. It was Yom Ha’atzmaut and the 60th anniversary of the foundation of Israel. We spent the night in Tel Aviv at a street celebration. I knew right then and there that I would always remember being in Israel on Israel’s 60th birthday. For me, this was a once in a life time thing.

Each year, on Yom Ha’atzmaut, I think of that day. I remember the people I met, the sound of the siren, the feeling of unity, and watching the fireworks from my rooftop. Joining these two holidays may seem like an anomaly, but to me it bears a simple message: We owe the independence and the existence of Israel to the people who sacrificed their lives for it.

– Elana Sable,  Administrative Coordinator



Chanukah, Christmas and the interfaith family: Tackling the “December dilemma.”

Every family has its own hallowed rituals and epic stories set to repeat so that children will know and remember and tell their own kids someday. My grandmother burnt the crescent rolls every Thanksgiving for 30 years. The first five times were by accident, and after that, I figure, she did it for the show…the way the whole family rushed around a too-small house hollering and opening windows and comforting the old lady who, truth be told, probably didn’t need comforting because she burnt those crescent rolls on purpose, in the name of Tradition. Now, as our house smells like the challah in the oven, I usher a familiar warning to anyone who’s still listening, “We need to keep an eye on things or else, just you wait, that bread’s going to look like Grammy’s crescent rolls!”

By virtue of secondhand experience and tender age, my daughter couldn’t possibly appreciate the importance of tending to the bread. She’s yet to reach the point of eye-rolling at my pre-Sabbath  foreboding. But I trust she’ll have her metaphorical “crescent rolls” – and the month of December might be one of them.

I’m a Jew-by-choice, married to a Jewish man, raising a Jewish daughter in an extended interfaith family that includes Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Episcopalians. And every year, at around the time that retail outlets start playing holiday (read: Christmas) music to the delight of shoppers (and maybe even me), my husband and I commence the annual conversation about how to best honor and enjoy our immediate family’s sacred traditions, to respect those of our neighbors – and our parents – and teach our daughter to do the same. Every year, at around that time, and even when Chanukah comes early, we navigate a sea of well-meaning but misinformed sentiment about the way we’re “missing out,” and every year we educate – quietly, gently, consistently – about how fortunate we are for the rich, wonderful array of holiday traditions we have. Every year, at least once, I remind myself, and now our daughter, that the person who sent us that awesome gift packaged in Christmas wrap knows we’re Jewish. (“They just love Christmas the way we love Chanukah and Passover and the Fourth of July! Now we know!”) Then I rewrap the present.

We interfaith families, diverse by our very nature, go about tackling the “December dilemma” in ways as very different as we. Probably, there’s no “right” way. Chanukah is a big deal in our house full of delicious food, festive Jewish music and Chanukah-themed children’s books. For us, for now, we’ve elected to bypass Christmas dinners, spending secular holidays with extended family and Jewish holidays at home. Christmas Eve is “Sushi Night,” the evening we get dressed up – think: Christmas-colored cocktail dresses, freshly-ironed shirts, ties! – to take our place at a window-seat in an empty Japanese restaurant across the street from a beautiful church. We watch the people coming and going from services, and we make plans for the next day. In the morning, we head downtown to ogle the window-display at Macy’s and the ice-skaters at the Frog  Pond. We volunteer. The homeless families who eat it, seem to enjoy the challah I took care not to burn.

“Look at that,” I say to anyone who’s still listening. “Now if we weren’t keeping an eye on it, that bread would have turned out just like Grammy’s crescent rolls and nobody would have enjoyed it.”

These things, I hope, are what my daughter remembers about December, about us, about her family.

Someday, if she asks what folks do on Christmas, we’ll explain as best we can. If she’s still curious, we’ll encourage her to call a grandparent or an aunt or uncle or cousin or friend to see for herself. Meanwhile, we’ll reinforce that, what for the way we go about our winter holidays differently, we love each other just the same.

Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters serves Jewish, non-Jewish and interfaith families. For information about, and resources for, interfaith families, visit!  

– Joni Kusminsky, J.D., Manager of Recruitment and Communications

Harvey’s spin on holiday giving: An interview with JBBBS President/CEO, Harvey Lowell.

For the second year in a row, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters (JBBBS) is partnering with Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) to launch Project Dreidel, a program that provides Chanukah gifts to Jewish and interfaith children in need. Harvey Lowell, JBBBS President/CEO, discusses how Project Dreidel is making a difference in the lives of local families.

Is there a belief that most Jewish families don’t need assistance?
Our single biggest challenge is that we, as a community, are not aware of how many of us are in strained circumstances, where incomes are low, needs are great, and connections to Jewish institutions are tenuous at best. It is assumed in the Jewish community that everybody except poor, older people have sufficient incomes, nice places to live, food and connections to Jewish institutions. In truth, almost two-thirds of the families JBBBS helps are not connected to synagogues, in part because they can’t afford it and in part because they’re too ashamed of their situations. Even the rabbis I’ve talked to don’t realize the kids JBBBS is helping are Jewish. JBBBS works with hundreds of young families whose situations are exacerbated by not just poverty but health concerns and disability concerns, and their kids can’t thrive in the way that they should.

How do you go about changing that view?10437_ProjDreidelAN14_250x250
And the answer is: it’s a tough slog. And by that I mean you have to keep going to synagogues, to any place where Jewish families or children might go to say, “This will benefit you. This will help people you know.” The Jewish day schools know people who can benefit from our services; the socially-isolated kid, the kids on scholarship, whoever it might be. We’re also improving social media capabilities in order to educate our community that this problem exists.

How did JBBBS first get involved with Project Dreidel?
I heard about Project Dreidel about a year and a half ago, at the same time that one of our board members, Steve Rosen, decided that what he wanted to develop a wish list to make sure that the kids we work with got something they actually wanted for Chanukah. It’s almost cliché to be the kid who’s looking in the store window at the bicycle that they know they’ll never get, but those are the kids we’re working with here. Project Dreidel fit in perfectly with that goal and has made a huge difference in our ability to achieve it.

Why is it important to support Project Dreidel?
Many of the kids we work with live in a circumstance where every frill, every extraneous item in a family’s life that’s outside of rent, food and schooling is out of bounds. They are immersed in a culture where every year, they see everyone else getting presents of some kind and there’s no hope for them to get one. So when you give a kid a gift that he wants, that he has no expectation of ever getting, it’s really a joyous moment. And the joy that these kids experience is something that the community can take real pride in. It’s a very small and very human act that’s important in terms of a child’s feeling that their family is able to provide for them and that they actually belong to a community that will provide for them. It is extremely powerful. It’s not easy to achieve, but by supporting Project Dreidel, it’s possible.

“When parents come to pick up these gifts that they’re then going to give to their kids, it’s very emotional for them. I can tell you, as someone who goes out and buys the presents, it’s very emotional for me to be able to help these parents out. I put a lot of effort into getting exactly what the kids want, because in many cases it will be the one shot for them to get anything at all.” -Steve Rosen, JBBBS Board Member

Project Dreidel raised almost $4,000 from more than 110 donors in its first year. What are your hopes for the program this year?
We’re hoping to increase both the amount of donations and the number of donors. Ultimately, we want to have this become a program that people look forward to; something that they want to support each year and one that continues to grow. If we raise $4,500 but that money comes from 7,000 donors, I would say that is a better outcome. It’s about getting more people to be aware that this phenomenon exists.

Are there any special programs JBBBS is doing this year to celebrate the overlap of Thanksgiving and Chanukah?
We are having a young adult event, timed to #GivingTuesday, at the Holiday Inn in Brookline. JBBBS is always looking for more volunteers to help in the vital work we do to strengthen our community from the bottom up.

We also have a special message to those looking to get involved.

To send a toy to a child in need, visit the Project Dreidel online store.