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E-Newsletter - Happy Hanukah!
December 11, 2014

Happy Hanukah!

In This Issue:

Money & the Holiday Season - An essay by Rabbi Debra

Hanukah Resources - Goodies new and old

Craig’s Corner - Notes from the rebbetzin

Staying In Touch & Calendar - With thanks to our subscribers

The Value(s) of Money & the Holiday Season
an essay by Rabbi Debra Orenstein

It’s that time of year, when Americans get into the spirit of the season. We return to our houses of worship: namely, the local malls.

Unfortunately, my bit of snidery is not merely ironic. We elevate gifts to a level of importance and meaning that makes our approach seem eerily like idol worship. And people who think of themselves as religious and/or spiritual are not immune.

It’s easy to get caught up in the fervor. Our child needs that American Girl doll or Lego Robotics set (either of which costs what we normally might spend on a wedding present). Aquisitiveness sets in. Then entitlement. And since all this “stuff” seems so necessary to happiness, why doesn’t it deliver? If you think we’re stressed now, wait until the credit card bills arrive in January.

I’m not saying anything new, but the problem seems to be growing worse. Some people don’t even see a problem. We have the money. Why not spoil the grandkids? Give the kids a holiday they will always remember?

If we don’t put the presents in perspective this season and prioritize giving over getting, then we are missing a gift that is more vital and precious than whatever lies, beautifully wrapped, under all that excess packaging. Kids – and adults – need to learn the value of money. I don’t just mean “what a dollar can buy.” And “money doesn’t grow on trees.” I mean:

• People and experiences will always bring more happiness than money and things. (Hence my new “eight gifts for eight nights” suggestion page: Eight Things To Give This Year – That Cost Nothing .)

• Watch what you are frugal about and what you splurge on. Make sure that your choices reflect your values.

• Are you a stagnant pool (which only receives) or a river that flows (with precious resources coming in and going out)? Does each child in the family buy or make something for others, as well as receiving gifts?

• Consider the “little extras” you indulge in – “stocking stuffers,” décor items, reflexology for feet that are aching from too much shopping. Then consider what a good charity or a poor family could do with that money. Not-so-fun fact: According to the Gallup organization, as of 2012, the median annual household income worldwide was $9,733, and the median per-capita household income, $2,920. In the United States, the annual household figure is $43,485. In Liberia, it is $781, which is typical of sub-Saharan nations.

This year in my “Hot Topics” class for Bar and Bat Mitzvah students at Congregation B'nai Israel, I devoted a unit to money. We discussed priorities, tzedakah, compound interest, and Talmudic teachings about money. These kids will soon be flush with cash and gift cards. It is not too early to talk about how to use their money.

At one point, I gave the class a list of holidays and lifecycle events, and asked them to generate as many ideas as they could (before the buzzer rang) about what role money played in each. The answers for Hanukah were many and varied: chocolate gelt (aka money) is the heart of the holiday - and spending more for fair trade gelt reflects good Jewish values; the dreidl game proves that money comes and money goes; families will collect money and engage in projects to benefit the needy in a program called Give/Get; and, of course, there are the presents.

One mom in my shul, whose kids are now in their 20's, has an inspiring plan for Hanukah gifts this year. She announced on Thanksgiving that there wouldn’t be any – at least not of the usual variety. She calculated that, between small gifts and large ones, hostess gifts and party favors, she was spending about $800. Then she read an article where I wrote that it costs, on average, about $800 to free a slave today. She told her adult children: “This year, for Hanukah, I am giving you the gift of a more just world. We’re freeing a slave.” (To make your own contribution of any amount toward freeing slaves, click here or on the logo below.)

If you have young children, that mom’s plan may be too radical for you. But consider “the reason for the season”: Hanukah is about freedom, justice, and the right to be different. Buck the trend this year. Give more – and give better – than even you expected.

Hanukah Resources - Goodies new and old

Please see the Holidays page at for lots of free, downloadable resources on Hanukah.

New this year is a special article on Eight Things to Give This Year – That Cost Nothing.

Our CD's, especially the two-CD set on Gratitude, make lovely Hanukah gifts. There is still time to get delivery of CDs during Hanukah, and you can also download from iTunes instantly.

T’ruah (The rabbinic call for human rights) and Fair Trade Judaica are promoting and selling fair trade chocolate gelt. Did you know that about 70% of the cacao beans picked in the world today are picked by slaves? Sadly, if you are not buying fair trade chocolate, then you are buying slave trade chocolate.

Craig's Corner, notes from the rebbetzin

What is your gift?
I remember my childhood excitement at Hanukah’s arrival, wondering what presents I would receive, salivating over the chocolate gelt I would unwrap, and savoring the strange hopeful feeling I would get during the lighting of the menorah each night. As I got older, the joy of the gifts came more from my connection to the people who made the thoughtful effort of giving; I begged off the gelt as I recognized it for the cheaply appeasing chocolate it was, but the hopeful feeling of seeing the increasing candlelight has stayed with me – and only grown.

Now I smile at my children’s excitement over the coming gift-giving. I’m still always happy at receiving something thoughtful from a loved one. I have a lovely sweater-vest from my aunt that I get joy from wearing, and I certainly enjoy reciprocating. But the material aspect of gifts given or received pales beside the personal connection. That’s why Debra’s Eight Gifts that Cost Nothing are so terrific.

The real gift is spiritual connection – the first impulse we know of Hashem. How we each find in ourselves the best way to connect spiritually to the world is a challenge I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Sometimes it involves things and money - and sometimes it doesn't.

For some time my friends and family have been urging me to share my photography publicly. Among personal and family photographs, I have also taken artistic pictures that reflect moments when I was transported. When I share these pictures, others tell me that the images also fill them with wonder. So I’ve started a new venture to share these pictures. The just-launched website will allow you to view and purchase high-quality prints, cards, and downloads of these photographs. I invite you to visit at:

If you see a picture or series there that would ennoble your home or office - or that you think will bring joy & wonder to someone you love, prints, posters, canvas-wraps, and cards can be shipped to arrive before the end of Hanukah. As a filmmaker and photographer, it's my job to inspire with images. It's also my passion. Images inspire me. I would be honored if my passion could become part of your gift to someone you care about.

In the coming Festival of Lights, I hope you’ll look into the candlelight and feel what I’ve felt, a joy & wonder at the good things that are abundant in the world we get to inhabit. Sure, there’s difficulty, but I try to see – and capture – the beauty in both the mundane and the awesome – and to share that beauty and wonderment. That, I hope is my gift. What is yours?

Staying in Touch & Calendar

Thank you for subscribing to this e-newsletter and for your valuable feedback on the experiences you've had with the resources at

Please be in touch via e-mail, join us in New Jersey, or consider inviting Debra to your community as a scholar-in-residence.

On Saturday, January 24, at 3 PM, Debra will be speaking at Congregation B'nai Jeshrun ("BJ") in New York City as the guest lecturer for the Shira Palmer Memorial Teaching. Information about this event is at

And join us next August 14-15 when Debra will be leading Shabbat services for the Hebrew Congregation at Chautauqua Institution, a favorite place of ours. Our whole family will be there, and we hope you can join us in this historic and inspirational setting. Information about Chautauqua is at

You are always welcome at our home synagogue, Congregation B'nai Israel in Emerson, NJ.

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