Hands-On Hanukkah Reaches New Families and Brings Communities Together

Hanukiyot have appeared in shop windows. Presents have been wrapped. And the Jewish Outreach Institute has deployed programs, training webinars, staff, and even dreidel costumes to help Jewish communal professionals bring Hanukkah to their public spaces. JOI’s Public Space Judaism program, Hands-On Hanukkah, is officially coming to town – that is, to 10 distinct communities across North America. Taking place in bookstores, malls, toy stores, and community centers, these events are designed to engage families and newcomers, who may otherwise not participate in the organized Jewish community.

The first five Hands-On Hanukkah events occurred this past weekend in Columbus, OH, Fairfax, VA, Vancouver, BC, Long Island, NY, and Houston, TX. It was my privilege to attend the Hands-On Hanukkah in Houston, TX, where our host partner Congregation Emanu-El brought the event to Learning Express Kids, a colorful, fun toy store bustling during the holiday shopping season. Before and during the event, I also had the opportunity to train and interact with the dynamic staff and volunteers representing Congregation Emanu-El. Their enthusiasm and willingness to literally put themselves out there (in painted faces and dreidel costumes!) brought smiles to all who passed by and participated. More importantly, volunteers and staff alike understood why we were there and why reaching newcomers in the public space can transform newcomers to engaged Jews.

One of Congregation Emanu-El’s volunteers, Joe Sears, recently blogged about volunteering for Houston’s Hands-On Hanukkah and how much fun his children had at the entertainer’s microphone. He wrote:

This weekend Rachael, the kids, and I volunteered with the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) (in partnership with our congregation, Emanu El) in their program: Hands-On Hanukkah. Part of JOI’s “Big Tent” philosophy and movement, Hands-On Hanukkah is about sharing, learning, and meeting people looking for a Jewish community. On a Sunday afternoon, we gathered outside a toy store (who agreed to host us), and engaged passers-by with holiday greetings, information about Hanukkah, door prizes, cookie-decorating, face-painting, and even a dancing dreidel!

Jeremy and Eden got especially excited when our team broke out the microphone. Apparently, our kids don’t suffer from stage fright. With plenty of gusto, they sang “Sivivon, Sov, Sov, Sov,” “I Have a Little Dreidel,” “Shema Israel,” and “Oh, Hanukkah.”

Chag Chanukah Sameach!

As parents with young children, Joe and his wife, Rachael, were wonderful choices for volunteers – both because they could relate to parents, but also because of their own newcomer “status” in the Houston Jewish community. Having only been in Houston for a year (all the while also being newcomers to Judaism), their willingness to represent the Houston Jewish community demonstrated why Congregation Emanu-El is indeed special and welcoming to all.

Fostering a communal spirit and empowering the volunteers is part of the mission of Hands-On Hanukkah. We at JOI want to thank the Sears Family, Congregation Emanu-El, and all of our Hands-On Hanukkah partners for helping share the lights of Hanukkah for us all!

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