There are many reasons Chanukah has become the most celebrated Jewish holiday in America. It’s fun; it’s family; it happens in the home or at shopping malls; no membership required; and (sorry, rabbis) no rabbis necessary.
But it wouldn’t be a Jewish holiday without some level of angst. For many families, particularly with young children, materialism becomes a concern. Between gifts from parents, grandparents and other sources, those of us blessed with the ability to shower our kids with toys instinctively look for alternatives: at least giving books one night, or socks if we really want to be grinchy.
At the same time, we look for ways to give back. Volunteering on Christmas Day is popular. But what can we do during Chanukah itself?
I wondered if we couldn’t come together as a community and designate one specific night of Chanukah as the giving-back night. Before rushing to create a new program, as is too often the de facto mode of Jewish communal professionals, I first searched online to see if it was already happening and lo and behold, Fifth Night!
Fifth Night is an annual event where children learn to make a difference by donating one night of their Hanukkah gifts to a chosen children’s charity.
Founded in Greater Boston seven years ago by parents Robert and Rachel Glazer and Amy Finn, the program has been offered by a growing number of synagogues and Jewish organizations in the Boston area and beyond. This year, in partnership with my colleagues at Big Tent Judaism, it’s growing nationally.
“We wanted to help enrich the holidays,” explains co-founder Amy Finn, “by extending our children’s spirit of giving beyond our own families to the greater community. As our kids grew older, we explored the concept of having them donate one of their Hanukkah gifts, but never really knew how to make it meaningful. We talked to many other families who felt the same way, and these discussions inspired the creation of Fifth Night.”
Fifth Night events are brief but deeply moving. Free and open to the community, each child brings at least one new gift and – after the requisite food, menorah lighting, and entertainment like music or arts and crafts – the kids form a processional to personally donate their gift. They then hear from the charity’s representative about how their gifts will make a difference in the lives of children in need. The charity is usually a secular organization like Birthday Wishes, which offers birthday parties for children living in homeless shelters.
“The impact of that moment on the participants is immediate and palpable,” says co-founder Robert Glazer. “For many of the kids, Chanukah had just been about them, and what they get as gifts. Adding this layer of meaning to the holiday helps them appreciate what they have, and provides them with an actionable expression of tzedakah, the Jewish value of righteous giving to those in need.”
Over the coming years, we hope to expand Fifth Night events into dozens of more communities. If your community does not yet host a Fifth Night program, we ask you to share the spirit of Fifth Night within your own family and at the Chanukah celebrations you attend.
Talk to your kids about giving back. Actively involve them in charitable giving. Adults understand the abstraction behind writing a check; kids need a more tactile feel. Help them to articulate: I’m going to pick out an additional new toy but instead of keeping it I’m going to give it away, because there’s a kid out there who otherwise wouldn’t get any gift at all during the holidays or on his or her birthday.
The fifth night of Chanukah this year begins at sundown on Thursday, December 10. For this one-eighth of the holiday, let’s put the focus on others rather than ourselves, and help our children understand why making the world a better place by helping those in need is among our tradition’s highest values.
Paul Golin is associate executive director of Big Tent Judaism, an independent, national organization reaching out to less-engaged Jews and unaffiliated intermarried families, and helping the organized Jewish community better welcome them in.