Community and Tzedakah at Hanukkah: An Interview with Authors Joelle Reizes and Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler

December 8, 2022Crystal Hill

One of the biggest challenges parents can face during Hanukkah is helping their children see that it is a distinct holiday, rather than just a "Jewish Christmas."

We sat down with co-authors Joelle Reizes (she/her) and Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler (he/him) to talk about all things Hanukkah, from the ways our celebrations have shifted in the past couple years to their interactive Hanukkah story for kids, "Courageous Candles."

What are some values that you want to teach kids through your book?

Joelle: Being of service is a responsibility and an honor. As my kids were growing up, I tried to make Hanukkah about more than presents. We did acts of tzedakah with them to give back and make the holiday more about Jewish values than gifts.

Joseph: Yeah . [It's not just] about getting stuff and me, me, me, me. This book is really about the honor of serving. The shamash is the servant candle and the star of the story. We wanted our story to be about the joy of serving others.

It's also about the importance of community. Sometimes, things get scary, and our community can come in and say, "You can do it! Courage!"

What is something that you hope makes "Courageous Candles" memorable for kids?

Joseph: It's a book that's meant to be acted out. You stand up straight, take a deep breath, you melt down to the floor, and you yell out, "We can do it!" And that's what we had in mind, [something experiential]. The kids stand up straight and tall, take a deep breath, and then blub, blub, blub, blub…down to the floor.

Joelle (laughing): That's the sound he makes!

What are some things families with young children can do to get them involved with Hanukkah?

Joseph: Putting money in the tzedakah box, playing dreidel, and watching the candles melt together are all great activities.

Joelle: You can also ask them to help with setting the table and putting the candles in the menorah, that's an important job.

Your kids are grown now, how do you celebrate with them when it may be difficult to get everyone in the same physical space?

Joseph : The online candle lightings that we can do through Zoom has really expanded our community. I love the fact that we can say, "Night three, we're gonna light candles together," even if Joelle is in Cleveland and I'm in Sharon, Massachusetts. That's super cool.

Joelle: We've had to create new celebrations now that our kids are older and everybody is scattered. Even my daughter in Israel joined us last time. She's seven hours ahead of us, so that takes some doing when you're lighting your candles at night.

It's important to us to create these new methods of celebrating when your kids aren't little and they're not necessarily in the house anymore.

What is your favorite thing about celebrating Hanukkah with your community, whether online or in-person?

Joelle: Jewish holidays are always about gathering. Our holidays revolve around community and, of course, eating together!

We're not meant to be alone; gathering with our communities is what makes Hanukkah fun.

Joseph: One of my biggest highlights of Hanukkah is Shabbat Hanukkah at our temple. I love having the community candle lighting. Everyone puts their menorahs on long tables that we've covered with aluminum foil, we light the candles together, and then the cantor and I sing our way through the service.

What do you try to elevate in your Hanukkah celebrations?

Joelle: In our houses, we de-emphasize the presents. Not that we don't give them! I love buying presents for the kids, but I try to de-emphasize them and instead focus on sharing, gathering with our community, and doing nice things for other people. When my kids were young, we would set aside a night and put money in the tzedakah box, or collect food and clothes, dropping them off so that we were giving, not just getting. I try to use Hanukkah not as a Jewish Christmas, but an actual Jewish holiday that stands on its own and just happens to sometimes occur at the same time as Christmas.

As you watch the Hanukkah candles burn down on the last night, take some time to reflect; even though it might be sad that the holiday is coming to an end, the candles have, as Joelle said, "done their job" by reminding us that even during the darkest time of year, light can be found amongst our families, friends, and in our communities. Hanukkah Sameach!

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