ICEJ Hanukkah collage

ICEJ Aid to Israeli Youth Home Brings Hanukkah Joy

By: ICEJ AID staff writers

The ICEJ has sent our Jerusalem staff in many directions over the course of the current war to distribute relief aid, visit and encourage Israelis, and take part in hands-on projects side by side Israeli volunteers.

On one recent aid trip, a sense of excitement filled the air as our team entered a children’s home and made our way through the packed holiday crowd to find the director. All was in readiness for our ICEJ delegation to celebrate Hanukkah with some 70 Israeli youths ranging from ages 7 to 18 who call the center their home.

Usually, this annual party is an opportunity for parents to visit and celebrate the holiday with their children. Leading up to the day of the party, both tension and excitement were at fever pitch as the children wondered if their parents would join them. This is no small matter, since these children were removed from their family homes due to concerns for their well-being, and they often have been disappointed in the past. But as with many things right now, this year is different.

When we found Maya, the director, she explained that unfortunately this year the parents could not join the party due to the war. As she shared, the sounds of explosions in the background muffled the holiday atmosphere – a sober reminder of Israel’s current reality. Thankfully, the blasts were still far enough away not to be too disruptive of the holiday cheer.

This is the children’s home where the ICEJ has donated kitchen equipment and is sponsoring a wildly popular baking workshop for the youth which provides them with both vocational training and creative therapy, which are especially needed in these difficult days. On this night, the budding bakers can show off their new-found skills by being the preferred caterers for all the sufganiyot (jelly donuts) and other traditional sweets and pastries for the annual Hanukkah celebration.

As we entered the party hall, the children and teens were buzzing with anticipation.

The local rabbi readied the candles of the hanukkiah menorah for the lighting ceremony to kick off the evening.

ICEJ staff member Fine Ditoka, herself a regular bundle of joy, could not resist the infectious cheer of the holiday and spontaneously grabbed a few hands and got the dances going as the music started. Her ICEJ colleague Jannie Tolhoek joined in, marveling at the resilience of these children who carry immense trauma, both from the impact of the war and their difficult family backgrounds. Nevertheless, the smiles were irrepressible.

As our team enjoyed the evening, 17-year-old Bogalech*, a bubbly young Ethiopian immigrant, ran over to greet us and, with eyes lit up, proudly presented us with her plate of sufganiyot. She encouraged us to taste, and a conversation began.

“I will be drafted into the army next year,” she shared. “So, I appreciate this time to process and express myself. Thank you so much for coming from Jerusalem to celebrate Hanukkah with us.”

She also wanted us to know what the baking workshop has meant for them.

“Thank you that, through you, we learned how to bake pastries and cakes and to do something so beautiful and creative,” she assured. “Through this baking club, we can learn creative ways to express ourselves. We are so extremely thankful. It gives us something to look forward to, to work together and have fun together.”

Soon, we found ourselves escorted by Bogalech to see the artistic renditions of the hanukkiot – the special nine-branched menorahs that is a centerpiece of the eight-day holiday. The challenge this year was for each student baker to create a Hanukkah menorah that reflects some aspect of the current conflict in Israel. The kids teasing and lobbying the judges who would decide which hanukkiah would be the winner only added to the fun. How to choose between them?

Each menorah created by the children was moving for our team to see. One had red poppy flowers to represent fields of red anemones at the annual poppy festival called Darom Adom (“Red South”) held in the south every February. It was meant to remind us that there is always hope in every season. Another recalled the tragedy at the Nova outdoor music festival and wrote, “We will dance again.” Through it they wanted to remind us that despite the sadness, Israel will rise and be joyful again.

Speaking to the director Maya, we learned that the bakery workshop had particularly caused one of the teenagers, Meirav,* to flourish and she has decided that baking will be her life profession. We were delighted to learn that this is no pipe dream. Meirav’s talents were apparent to all, and she was chosen among dozens to receive a scholarship to a specialized bakery program. This precious girl may have come from a broken home and experienced immense trauma from her childhood, but the investment here has meant new skills that are paving a path to healing, new dreams, and a brighter future.

Before we knew it, the party was winding down and it was time to reluctantly say our goodbyes. In the end, the Nova festival hanukkiah stole the judges’ hearts with its message of renewed hope. May we all be inspired by these children to remember that these tough times will pass and hope will be restored for more joyful days ahead. Happy Hanukkah!

Help us to inspire new hope and bring back joy to other Israelis in need during this difficult time.