For the second year in a row, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters (JBBBS) is partnering with Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) to launch Project Dreidel, a program that provides Chanukah gifts to Jewish and interfaith children in need. Harvey Lowell, JBBBS President/CEO, discusses how Project Dreidel is making a difference in the lives of local families.
Is there a belief that most Jewish families don’t need assistance?
Our single biggest challenge is that we, as a community, are not aware of how many of us are in strained circumstances, where incomes are low, needs are great, and connections to Jewish institutions are tenuous at best. It is assumed in the Jewish community that everybody except poor, older people have sufficient incomes, nice places to live, food and connections to Jewish institutions. In truth, almost two-thirds of the families JBBBS helps are not connected to synagogues, in part because they can’t afford it and in part because they’re too ashamed of their situations. Even the rabbis I’ve talked to don’t realize the kids JBBBS is helping are Jewish. JBBBS works with hundreds of young families whose situations are exacerbated by not just poverty but health concerns and disability concerns, and their kids can’t thrive in the way that they should.
How do you go about changing that view?
And the answer is: it’s a tough slog. And by that I mean you have to keep going to synagogues, to any place where Jewish families or children might go to say, “This will benefit you. This will help people you know.” The Jewish day schools know people who can benefit from our services; the socially-isolated kid, the kids on scholarship, whoever it might be. We’re also improving social media capabilities in order to educate our community that this problem exists.
How did JBBBS first get involved with Project Dreidel?
I heard about Project Dreidel about a year and a half ago, at the same time that one of our board members, Steve Rosen, decided that what he wanted to develop a wish list to make sure that the kids we work with got something they actually wanted for Chanukah. It’s almost cliché to be the kid who’s looking in the store window at the bicycle that they know they’ll never get, but those are the kids we’re working with here. Project Dreidel fit in perfectly with that goal and has made a huge difference in our ability to achieve it.
Why is it important to support Project Dreidel?
Many of the kids we work with live in a circumstance where every frill, every extraneous item in a family’s life that’s outside of rent, food and schooling is out of bounds. They are immersed in a culture where every year, they see everyone else getting presents of some kind and there’s no hope for them to get one. So when you give a kid a gift that he wants, that he has no expectation of ever getting, it’s really a joyous moment. And the joy that these kids experience is something that the community can take real pride in. It’s a very small and very human act that’s important in terms of a child’s feeling that their family is able to provide for them and that they actually belong to a community that will provide for them. It is extremely powerful. It’s not easy to achieve, but by supporting Project Dreidel, it’s possible.
“When parents come to pick up these gifts that they’re then going to give to their kids, it’s very emotional for them. I can tell you, as someone who goes out and buys the presents, it’s very emotional for me to be able to help these parents out. I put a lot of effort into getting exactly what the kids want, because in many cases it will be the one shot for them to get anything at all.” -Steve Rosen, JBBBS Board Member
Project Dreidel raised almost $4,000 from more than 110 donors in its first year. What are your hopes for the program this year?
We’re hoping to increase both the amount of donations and the number of donors. Ultimately, we want to have this become a program that people look forward to; something that they want to support each year and one that continues to grow. If we raise $4,500 but that money comes from 7,000 donors, I would say that is a better outcome. It’s about getting more people to be aware that this phenomenon exists.
Are there any special programs JBBBS is doing this year to celebrate the overlap of Thanksgiving and Chanukah?
We are having a young adult event, timed to #GivingTuesday, at the Holiday Inn in Brookline. JBBBS is always looking for more volunteers to help in the vital work we do to strengthen our community from the bottom up.
We also have a special message to those looking to get involved.
To send a toy to a child in need, visit the Project Dreidel online store.