How displaced families in Israel will celebrate Hanukkah thanks to the Colorado community
At the November Jewish Explorers Shabbat dinner in the Highlands, families gather around a long table covered in small wooden blocks with candle holders attached to them. Take a second look, and you realize that, when assembled, the blocks create Hanukkiyot, Hanukkah menorahs.
The Abbott family, including Grandma Janice, parents Sarah and Richard, and children David and Rick are carefully painting each individual block.
“This is a way for our boys to share a part of themselves with someone we will never meet,” Richard says. “But we hope they will get some happiness out of it.”
The 125 Hanukkiyot are being hand-carried to Ramat HaNegev, JEWISHcolorado’s partner region in Israel, where they will be distributed among the many families who fled the Gaza Envelope after the October 7 terrorist attack—leaving behind their possessions and their homes, some of which had been destroyed.
The Hanukkiyot project started with an idea from JEWISHcolorado’s Shlicha Nelly Ben Tal, was organized with lightning speed by the leaders of two JEWISHcolorado programs—Cindy Coons of Jewish Explorers and Bethany Friedlander of PJ Library—and became a reality, thanks to dozens of families around the Denver metro area and a personal connection to a pilot with EL AL Airline.
“Everyone has just done their best to make this happen,” Ben Tal says. “It’s a lot like Hanukkah, where miracles happen.”
‘What can we do?’
The project started with a conversation between two Shlichim, Ben Tal in Denver and her counterpart in Dallas. The Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas was planning to buy Hanukkiyot from Israeli artists for families who may have lost everything after the terror attack. But Ben Tal had a different idea.
“I thought we could make them,” she says. “If we work together, then you are not alone, and I am not alone. We may both feel devastated, but together we can make something that will reach out to another family and light their Hanukkah days.”
Ben Tal approached Friedlander who has extensive connections within the community through PJ Library, a program that sends free Jewish children’s books to families across the world every month. “Before I got back to my desk, Bethany had organized this project,” Ben Tal says with a laugh.
“We had been hearing since October 8, ‘What can we do? What can my children do?’” Friedlander adds. “This was something tangible that everyone from a preschooler to a grandmother could do and it was connected to Israel, to Judaism, and to our community.”
Friedlander brought in Coons because of her connections to families around the metro area through Jewish Explorers, a JEWISHcolorado program that helps families find meaningful and relevant ways to practice Judaism in their homes and in the community. By the end of the day, the two women had ordered supplies to make 125 Hanukkiot, including 1,300 blocks.
“When we light the Hanukkiah, we are reminded of the importance of adding and increasing light in the community through this beautiful ritual,” Coons says. “With this project, we could add and increase light for displaced families in Israel. Sharing light does not diminish our own light. It shows kindness, compassion, love, and our collective concern for our community.”
There was only one hurdle. The candle holders did not come pre-attached to the blocks. That’s when another member of the Coons family set his alarm a few hours earlier every day and stepped in to help.
‘The power of a community network’
When Cindy Coons saw the raw materials for the Hanukkiyot, she made a call to her husband Rich whose hobby is woodworking. Could he attach candle holders to blocks? Yes, he could, and he started immediately. By the time he finished, he had attached metal candle holders to 1,000 blocks for the candles, and to 125 double blocks to make the shamashim, so the shamash would be taller than the other candles.
Then the community went to work. PJ Library families mobilized by Family Connectors gathered from Central Park to Thornton, from Castle Rock to Westminster. Friedlander heard from families that had never before been involved with JEWISHcolorado, including one Green Mountain family that gathered 13 other families for a painting Shabbat.
“This just shows the power of a community network,” she says. “Why is the Federation able to mobilize so quickly? Because they have infrastructure in place. Having these networks is so important.”
Coons organized Jewish Explorers families from around the metro area to gather to paint. At the Highlands Shabbat, children played and painted, and Coons tied the activity into their November focus on gratitude.
“I feel grateful that we can do something that shows we care about our families and friends in Ramat HaNegev,” she says. “I am thankful that we have the kind of community in Colorado that, when we share these opportunities, will step up to make a difference.”
When they were finished, each Hanukkiah, with blocks, candles, and Hanukkah blessings, was packed in a burlap bag. A member of Nelly Ben Tal’s family who is an EL AL pilot will pick up the burlap bags in New York, fly them to Israel, and deliver them to Ramat HaNegev.
And on the first night of Hanukkah, a child in Israel will light a candle on a Hanukkiah painted by a child in Denver and perhaps realize that where there is light, there is hope.