Sharing the best of holiday traditions.
Ah, the eternal question: What do Jews do on Christmas? It’s true—many do eat Chinese food (because the Chinese restaurants are often the only ones open) and go to the movies (to see the new releases). However, while Christmas is perceived as a day celebrated in comfort and joy, for too many in the heart of New Jersey, the holiday is anything but.
That is why many Jews spend part of the day, and those leading up to it, performing acts of loving kindness, volunteering to bring some of that comfort and joy to their neighbors of all faiths. These programs, all based on traditional Jewish values, run the gamut.
Congregants at New Brunswick’s Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple act as elves, anonymously, of course. According to Rabbi Philip Bazeley, RJE, in the weeks leading up the big day, the synagogue activates its “Wishing Wall.” An online site lists gift items “wished for” by those in the wider community who lack the means to purchase them. Synagogue members purchase the wished-for items, which are then distributed by AEMT’s Community Development Committee.
Also, as a partner in the New Brunswick Interfaith Homeless Shelter, the synagogue feeds and houses area homeless men for Christmas week as well as one other week in February.
According to Dr. Joe Cohn, a retired family physician and fifth-generation member of AEMT, he and a band of some 35 volunteers make all the food for everyone in the shelter during the week, from Christmas Eve through New Year’s.
“We also provide food for Elijah’s Promise, the New Brunswick soup kitchen,” he said. “The turkeys are donated by synagogue members, and all our expenses are covered by donations. And a big plus is that our group has always included teenagers, which is just great.”
Meanwhile, religious school students/elves at Monmouth Reform Temple, Lincroft, work with the New Jersey chapter of Covenant House, a national program providing supportive services to 18- to 21-year-olds facing homelessness. The MRT students provide gift cards to Covenant House clients.
However, the congregation’s elf-action doesn’t end there. According to Social Action Chair Rickie Kashdan, the synagogue also has a long-standing relationship with The Center in Asbury Park, which offers support for people living with HIV/AIDS.
“The Center gives MRT the first names, age, and clothing size, of 50 to 60 of their clients,” she said. “Each participating MRT member fills a box with warm clothing and other comforting items, one box per client. The filled boxes are delivered to The Center, and their clients receive a box of surprises for Christmas.”
Among Temple Shaari Emeth’s annual holiday season traditions is the placement of a large ”Miracle Menorah,” in the Manalapan synagogue’s lobby. It is decorated with paper mittens, each containing the first name and age of a child, and their wish. The wishes are filled by temple families who purchase the items and bring them, with the mittens, to the synagogue so they can be distributed to those in need through two local organizations assisting children and families in crisis: the Hazlet-based RAINE Foundation, and Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Monmouth County.
TSE’s Early Learning Center is also collecting gifts in support of a program organized by Trenton’s Lion of Judah Faith Center.
The temple’s Rabbi Melinda Panken described its participation in Freehold’s EHAP, Emergency Housing and Advocacy Program, explaining that the synagogue will host the shelter on Christmas Eve. “Temple volunteers also take over the soup kitchen at St. Peter’s Church in Freehold on December 25th to keep it open on Christmas Day, so that those who are food insecure can enjoy a hot lunch on the holiday,” she said.
“At Temple Shaari Emeth, we like to make the world a better place,” Rabbi Panken said. That sentiment fuels activities like all those mentioned above and many others, activities that put the heart in the heart of New Jersey.
JoAnn Abraham began chronicling Jewish life as editor of Monmouth County’s Jewish newspaper, now defunct, and has written for national and international publications. She is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.