Last week, Jews across the world came together to light candles and revel in the miracles of Chanukah. Different cultures even celebrated the holiday according to their own centuries-old traditions.
Across the State of Israel, Jewish communities began nurturing new Chanukah traditions, too.
With the help of JDC’s at-risk children and youth initiative, Ashalim, “Better Together” neighborhoods from Be’er Sheva to Kiryat Shmona celebrated Chanukah with a renewed commitment to bringing light back into their communities.
Better Together operates in Israel’s poorest neighborhoods to improve the quality of life for children and families.
This Chanukah, residents from apartment blocks across the Better Together neighborhood in Kiryat Shmona gathered in their courtyards to light candles, sing festive songs, and enjoy sufganiyot. Better Together in Kiryat Shmona has more than 3,800 participants involved in roughly 40 projects.
Community organizers purposefully lit menorahs near residential buildings; their goal was to bring light to families who were either not invited to a Chanukah celebration or might not feel safe enough to venture outside at night.
Take Marcel, a resident of Kiryat Shmona for more than three decades.
After her children moved from the city and her husband died, Marcel found it difficult to live alone, which in turn affected her health and quality of life. Last Chanukah, a few girls from her apartment block invited her downstairs to light the Chanukah candles together. At this small gathering, Marcel met the neighbors who would become her new family.
Since that evening, she has been an active volunteer, organizing activities for women and girls in the neighborhood.
She and a number of other women in the neighborhood heard from younger mothers about their difficulties raising teenage girls, and in turn began organizing mother-daughter activities at a neighborhood youth club. They also reached out to struggling single mothers from the former Soviet Union.
“For several years I lived in the dark,” Marcel said. “I did not see the ray of light and hope. But since the girls and their mothers arrived at the local youth club activities, my spirit has changed.”
In Be’er Sheva, the Better Together neighborhood Yud Alef held its own Chanukah celebrations. Throughout the neighborhood, residents blessed the holiday candles, enjoyed Chanukah treats, and organized children’s activities.
Ilana and her daughter Shachar, 8, residents of Yud Alef in Be’er Sheva, have felt the impact of their Better Together community. Shachar is involved in the Mishachkiya game room program, a creative play therapy outlet for families and their children. She basks in the warmth of her second family, eagerly awaiting each weekly meeting.
Better Together, one of Ashalim’s flagship programs, employs an innovative strategy to minimize systemic gaps among Israeli children and youth.
JDC-Ashalim, in partnership with local municipalities, identifies specific neighborhoods and seeks to give residents a voice in the decision-making process, strengthen the community’s belief in its own ability to change the situation, and train residents to carry out the change effectively.
Working closely with the municipality, the initiative leverages existing infrastructure, such as schools, community centers and public spaces, to empower the community members to take an active role in shaping the future of their neighborhood.
Programs range from specialized parenting groups (e.g. for single mothers, parents to teenagers, and parents of children with special needs) and after-school enrichment, to inter-neighborhood father-son soccer leagues and women’s cooking clubs.
Better Together helps to establish action committees, comprised of community members, municipal leaders, local service providers, and NGO representatives that aim to affect families’ quality of life. These include committees dedicated to updating and caring for communal urban green spaces, arranging neighborhood security, and implementing health-related programming.
Ashalim Director Dr. Rami Sulimani conceived of the Better Together program and has followed the growth of the program to some 40 neighborhoods.
He said the program gives neighborhood residents “the opportunity to express their voice, use their skills for the sake of their community and for their children.”
Dr. Sulimani said that when visiting Better Together communities, residents have thanked him for all that JDC has brought into their neighborhood.
“Thanks to the program, we’ve grown to become involved in serving the community,” they tell him. “We feel that we have the power to influence and make a difference in our lives, to live in a well-kept place and take responsibility for what is happening around us.”
Yehuda Zusman, Better Together’s Northern Region manager, said Chanukah ties in well to the larger goals of the neighborhood initiative.
“The core of the Chanukah narrative celebrates the triumph of light over darkness. And that is exactly what our Better Together neighborhoods are doing this Chanukah,” he said. “In a physical sense, they are honoring the mitzvah of candle lighting, and illuminating their homes, courtyards and public spaces. In a spiritual sense, the communities are taking the future of their neighborhoods into their own hands, in turn making their neighborhoods brighter places to live.”