The joy of Hanukkah gift giving — even during a pandemic

There is often confusion among Jews around the globe about why, when and how the tradition of Hanukkah gift-giving originated.

Has exchanging gifts with loved ones and friends always been a part of the tradition? Why do we do it?

There is nothing in religious texts nor the original retellings of the Maccabees that specifically calls for gift-giving during the eight nights of Hanukkah. As a result, this tradition has been the subject of debate, with many scholars looking for reasons as to why it has become so ingrained in the holiday.

The truth is, there’s probably not one correct answer.

However, many of us at Birthright Israel believe that Jews around the world have adopted and passed down gift giving during Hanukkah over time for one simple reason: It makes people feel good.

We’ve all experienced the happiness and warm feeling that accompanies exchanging gifts. It turns out, there is a scientific reason why people feel that way. In fact, experts at some of the leading institutions in the world have performed studies that found the gift exchange — whether giving or receiving — evokes feelings of gratitude. According to those experts, gratitude is a key driver of happiness, health and social bonds.

Our co-founder Charles Bronfman who has written an exemplary book about it, “the Art of Giving,” and our largest donor Sheldon Adelson lives it, motivated in his giving by his deep feeling of commitment to share part of his wealth with young Jewish adults as a token of gratitude to those who made it possible for him to participate in Jewish life when he was young.

Birthright Israel was founded on an audacious, yet simple premise: To give every Jewish young adult around the world the gift of a free trip to Israel. Over the last 20 years, the organization has facilitated a lot of gifts. In fact, more than 750,000 young Jewish adults from 68 countries have received this gift. This stunning achievement has only been made possible with the help of our donors from around the world who have given generously to achieve this goal.

And, we’ve found that Birthright’s gifts have made a measurable impact on global Jewish communities.

Just before the pandemic broke out, Prof. Len Saxe of Brandeis University released a report with incredible findings. That study found that 20 years ago there were approximately 5.5 million Jews in the United States. Today, that population is 7.5 million. Two decades after it was launched, studies suggest these gifts provided by Birthright helped increase the U.S. Jewish population by 25%.

Headed into 2020 we had plans to celebrate this achievement. We planned to give tens of thousands of new gifts, then suddenly, everything changed.

As Covid-19 spread and its severity became clear, we wasted no time taking action. In an unprecedented move, we postponed all trips until further notice. We took no risks, prioritizing the safety of our participants and staff as we always have and always will.

Postponing trips for the first time in the history of the organization was a difficult decision but despite the circumstances, we remembered why we are here: To give, with the purpose of strengthening young Jewish adults around the world with their identity, community and connection to Israel.

This realization inspired us. Just because we could not give the gift of trips, it did not mean that we could not still give in other ways. We knew that we can still serve our mission by being more creative. So we got back to the work of giving. And this giving has brought us immeasurable joy.

We gave first to those who were most in need through our Olim assistance Israeli alumni task force, which provided assistance to recent immigrants to Israel suffering from COVID-19-related problems.

We then supported our wonderful alumni initiatives, including Door 2 Dor, a tool that provides assistance to the elderly and Connect for Covid-19, a service that provides smart devices to help Covid patients and their loved ones connect.

Next, we gave people the chance to travel through Israel from anywhere in the world with our first-of-its-kind interactive, virtual tour of Israel. Since it was launched this summer, more than a million people were exposed to the tour and 140,000 of them have participated in the full experience.

Afterward, we turned to our Birthright Excel internship program. Excel worked tirelessly to turn our in-person Fellowship into a fully online experience, giving more than 50 participants the chance to pursue their dreams, even while other internships around the globe were canceled.

In total, we’ve carried out more than 20 different initiatives since the beginning of the pandemic that have reached more than 9 million people. During our most difficult year ever, this engagement has given us hope. Despite being physically further apart than ever before, the giving of our alumni, of our donors and of our organization has brought us closer together spiritually.

Our latest initiative has a simple goal: to give our alumni a voice! We are currently operating an online incubator, inviting past participants to give us some ideas about what they’d like us to do next. While we look forward to resuming trips during the summer of 2021, what else should we do?

As Hanukkah approaches, we are filled with gratitude as an organization. We are thankful for our wonderful donors, who continue to support us, for our incredible alumni, who continue to change the world and to our outstanding staff, who have turned hardship into opportunity.

Finally, we are grateful for our ability to give. May this gratitude continue to guide us all.

Gidi Mark is the CEO of Birthright Israel.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

The gift of Hanukkah gift giving

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The joy of Hanukkah gift giving — even during a pandemic

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