Spreading Kindness, a Thousand to a Million

By Sara Ivry

[Editor’s note: COVID-19 regulations vary by country. ROI Community members mentioned below were responsible for adhering to all local health guidelines and best practices when organizing events during these unprecedented times.]

While COVID-19 restrictions hampered Chanukah celebrations this year, they didn’t entirely do them in – many people in communities around the world still found creative and inspiring ways to celebrate. That includes among them members of the Schusterman Foundation’s ROI Community. 

Around the world, ROIers came up with innovative ways to celebrate the eight-day festival of lights under the auspice of #AThousandToAMillion: ROI Chanukah 2020. There were events over Zoom, socially-distant in-person gatherings and more in the US, Europe, Africa, South America and Israel aimed at giving back and forging community.

On the first Friday of Chanukah Ester Bisawer, an ROI member since 2018, found herself chopping onions and stirring rice as part of an outdoor, ROIer-coordinated event in Jerusalem to put together and deliver packages of food to refugees and others in need. This was one of three like-minded programs held that day (all organized according to the Israeli Health Ministry’s “Purple Standard”); the other two were in Netanya and Tel Aviv. What made it unique, Bisawer said, was the humility it embraced. 

“It wasn’t about us being in the center or talking about ourselves,” Bisawer said. “We were here to listen.” 

“Chanukah’s purpose is to spread light and joy in the world,” she added, “and this wasn’t a massive giving event, it was humble and modest and it was making others feel happy.” 

Dana Sender-Mulla, the ROIer who oversaw the event in Netanya, echoed that sentiment.  

“ROI invests in us,” Sender-Mulla said, “and we see this as an opportunity to give back to our community, to do acts of kindness together as a group.” 

The Netanya cohort prepared food and packages – 50 in all – for underprivileged women and single mothers living in poverty. Sender-Mulla said about 15 ROIers took part. “It was a beautiful atmosphere of people working with each other,” she said, adding that they hosted representatives of the recipient community in order to learn about their struggles and traditions. “This was an opportunity to give and also an opportunity to learn. Partner organizations came in and spoke about their communities, their needs, their difficulties and also the unique and beautiful things about them.”

ROIers elsewhere took up the #AThousandToAMillion challenge in other meaningful ways. Here are some snapshots:

In Argentina, Paola Salem arranged for a giant Chanukiah to be paraded by truck around Buenos Aires, ending up in La Boca, the neighborhood of the city that is home to many Jews as well as the area’s only soccer stadium to offer kosher fare. That was the Chanukiah’s final destination. Its route through La Boca gave “an opportunity to the families and the kids that are not going out because of COVID to go out of their home and be in the street when the truck goes through,” she said. Music played from the truck and families – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – on balconies throughout La Boca clapped and cheered. A caravan of cars spontaneously started to follow the truck and honk horns in celebration. 

Throughout the city everyone could “see the Chanukiah, take a picture. We gave some gifts to the kids,” Salem said. “That’s the way I like to spread Judaism – spread the light in this case. Anybody who wants to take a picture with the Chanukiah, just come.”

“Being in Israel, we have a responsibility,” said Vika Kanar, an ROIer in the midst of a pilot project in Kfar Saba aimed at exponentially increasing textile recycling and upcycling. “Call it Tikkun Olam or call it Or La Goyim[a light unto the nations], so many Jewish ideas that correspond to taking care of our planet – this is the macro vision behind this project.”

Starting in October, Kanar led Zoom training courses for some 100 women on textile waste, the near impossibility that certain fabrics – polyester, for instance – can biodegrade, and how technology can be used to repurpose textiles. She specifically wanted to engage underserved women of all ages and backgrounds, Jews and Arabs, new Olim and long-time citizens, and any others who might have fewer opportunities to learn about sustainability, fashion, fabric and technology. In person, Kanar brought together groups of 20 women who maintained social distance at a local sustainability center; in order to comply with rules governing social distancing, the center determined who and how many people could come onto their premises exactly when. The first day Kanar and company were permitted limited entry coincided with the first day of Chanukah, and after the group sorted several tons of donated garments, they lit the Chanukiah.

Kanar had come up with the germ of this idea several years earlier, at an ROI Tu B’Shvat event. “When you do something from scratch, you really don’t have any idea how it will turn out,” she said, reflecting on her project. “And then it happens, you see this little miracle, you see it as something that can enlighten people. You can see with the social aspect of our project – that this is something that empowers women. Chanukah is so much about empowerment … and we really see how it lights up the women.”

For Haim Casas, a Spain-born rabbi and Jewish educator with part-time pulpits in France, COVID-19 presented a unique challenge.

“A small community is really, really fragile. It can disappear like that, just a small fight between members and the community is gone.” Casas said, referring specifically to his home community in Seville, made up of some 30 families. “This community was founded in the year 2010. It’s a baby. Something like a pandemic, something like not meeting for a year—that can have a really serious consequence.”

To ensure that the community remains intact, Casas felt compelled to find a way to bring people together in person. That meant forgoing anything in their tiny synagogue where social distancing would be impossible, in favor of a bigger venue, in this case the Moroccan Pavilion from the 1992 World’s Fair in Seville. The space was large enough that it could house several dozen people who could be seated at sufficient and healthy proper distance from one another. Musicians from Malaga performed Ladino songs, there was candle-lighting and, most importantly, the opportunity for community members to see one another in person after too long of an absence.

“We are Spanish. We are Andalusian,” Casas said, explaining that in normal times, “We love touching. We love kissing. We love getting together and part of our culture is to gather, to meet.”

For now though, Casas added, “the most important thing for me is that people are going to be able to see their faces without a screen, without a computer.”

Further east, in Serbia, ROIer Sonja Vilicic faced similar challenges: how to keep a small, geographically-dispersed, largely irreligious community engaged? Her multi-pronged solution consisted of a series of eight videos, one released each day, teaching elements of the Chanukah rite, such as how to recite the blessings over the candles and how to light them.

“The second thing we did is we created a board game,” she said. Designed by community members who came up with questions and answers, the game was sent to every family in the 3000-person community with a child under the age of 15. Others could print it out at home and play, too. “It’s a game for all the family,” she said. “The purpose was that families play this game with their kids and educate themselves” about things like the difference between a Menorah and a Chanukiah, what the ninth candle is called, who the Maccabees fought, what the letters on a dreidel stand for, and more.

The final element in Vilicic’s program was also educational: an online event connecting Chanukah to minority rights, human rights and the rights of the Roma, who have traditionally suffered persecution in Serbia. 

And though the pandemic dashed hopes for in-person meetings, it also opened up unforeseen opportunities. “There is a large Jewish Serbian diaspora, and they never could take part in in-person gatherings,” she said. “We have many people living in Israel, the US, Australia, New Zealand that were part of this.”

“In a time when we can’t do events, how do we humanize homelessness?” That question has been foremost on the mind of Adina Lichtman during the pandemic. The ROIer is the social entrepreneur behind Knock Knock Give a Sock, which serves people experiencing homelessness and, moreover, seeks to forge connections between them and their neighbors. 

In a typical year, Lichtman organizes a holiday carnival at a local public school where half of the student body lives in shelters. In a typical year, there are activity booths, food, all sorts of entertainment, and gift bags. Rather than give up on the festivities entirely this year, Lichtman pivoted in order to ensure that celebrations could go on in compliance with social distance and best practices in the fight against COVID-19 transmission. She arranged for 200 gift-filled backpacks to be given to kids from the school at a pared-down, on-site event, where students were lined up six feet apart from one another. There was a balloon maker, a juggler and musicians on hand to entertain the children while they waited. The rest of the carnival—face painting, bouncy houses, food, and more—are lined up for some time in 2021, as soon as more carefree public events are allowed to resume.

“There’s actually a really cool idea in the Torah portion of Re’eh, it says do not harden your heart when it comes to Tzedakah,” Lichtman said. “Don’t close your fist, keep your hands open. Poverty will always exist. Giving back at this time of the year, we’re choosing to soften our hearts … To me, my Judaism is that verse, those few passages.” 

In addition to taking lives, the pandemic has taken away livelihoods. That fact was central to the Chanukah programming ROIer Rachel Namudosi organized in Uganda. Over the course of three days, some 50 Jewish women came from all over the country to celebrate Chanukah, sing holiday songs, and learn soap-making and other skills that they can share in their home communities and that can help them achieve economic empowerment. 

“In Africa women work more than men. They don’t have time for themselves, apart from Shabbat and other Jewish holidays,” Namudosi said. “So this was a great time to have some space from sweeping and baking and taking care of their families. This was a special time for them to rest and share ideas and challenges, learn Torah, learn Chanukah stories, and rub shoulders” – so to speak – “as women, interacting.”

They met in a large guest house donated for this event by a community member in Budaka City. It was big enough to offer socially-distant shelter for all attendees, and was held in compliance with local rules in the fight against pandemic spread.

“So many women in families have lost their jobs, especially in the pandemic, and many families are having problems in terms of surviving,” Namudosi said. “We thought this would be a great idea to help women to sustain themselves. They have to be a light: in their homes in terms of economic empowerment, a light in spiritual terms.”

Lena Bakman and Nirit Bialer are Germany-based ROI Igniters (hub leaders), roles they assumed not quite a year ago. Then COVID hit, and rather than outright halt all plans for ROI Community events in Germany, the pair moved programming online. With Chanukah approaching, the two knew they wanted to do something to bring everyone virtually together at one time in a spirit of celebration and fortitude. 

“In the last few months doing online events, we tried in every event to add some personal component,” Bialer said. “Even if we meet online you get something in advance, a present, something tangible. On Shavuot we did an online cooking class and we sent everybody a bottle of wine. We had another event a couple of weeks ago – a virtual tour of Berlin – and beforehand we sent a map.”

For Chanukah, they sent a Chanukiah, candles, dreidels, vouchers for sufganiyot, and personal letters to ROIers in Germany as well as to other people in their network, hoping that these heartfelt gifts and notes would give this dismal calendar year a joyful ending.

“It’s a holiday of light getting into a dark period,” Bakman said. “In Europe there is a feeling of a little loneliness. We are alone, here with our immediate family but we don’t have extended family in Germany. Also other hub members are lone wolves here, so the ROI hub is a local family.”