The proximity of Chanukah to the Christmas season makes it challenging for parents to turn their children’s attention toward the spiritual aspect of the holiday. With so much emphasis on gift-giving, what can families do to make the holiday less materialistic and more meaningful?

Here are some ideas from local parents who have managed to do just that, along with some tips on teaching children to appreciate the true meaning of Chanukah from family and marriage therapist Dr. Natasha Kendal.

As a child growing up in Israel, where giving elaborate gifts was not the custom, Rachel Kapen of West Bloomfield received the traditional gift of Chanukah gelt, or money.

“The custom of buying expensive gifts for Chanukah obviously began because of the proximity to Christmas,” Kapen said. “Growing up in Eretz Israel and then the State of Israel, we didn’t have this proximity … so, every Chanukah, we kids used to go to a few of our parents’ good friends and family to get our traditional Chanukah gelt.”

Rachel Kapen and two of her grandchildren

Kapen has continued this tradition with her grown children and grandchildren, who are scattered across the country, by sending each grandchild a small check they can use to buy something for themselves.

“Albeit not exactly the Chanukah gelt of my childhood, it is still not the intention to equate Chanukah and Christmas, two holidays that have nothing in common,” she said.

Tali Wendrow of West Bloomfield, who was also born in Israel, grew up feeling as if she were on a “different planet” from her American-born friends whose holiday consisted of nightly gifts, usually culminating in a large present, such as a bicycle.

“I was like ‘What?! That’s crazy’,” she said. “We just lit our candles, ate latkes and got small token gifts and the chocolate gelt. I’m cool with that, and it’s pretty much what we’ve done with our kids who are now 22 and 23.”

Serving dinner to the homeless people housed at Temple Israel has become a holiday tradition for Fawn and Adam Chayet of West Bloomfield and their children, Matthew, 16, and Abby, 12.

“We also donate gifts to Children’s Hospital in Detroit. My kids have fun shopping and picking out new games and toys to donate … I’ve always wanted my kids to know the holiday season is about giving … not getting,” Fawn said.

Lisa Ziff’s daughters, Shay, 12, and Brooke, 9, select eight of their own toys each Chanukah season to donate to underprivileged children.

“Everybody can enjoy the holidays, and my girls can learn how fortunate they are and how other people are not as fortunate,” said Ziff, who lives in Bloomfield Hills.

Rabbi Levi and Mushky Dubov

For Rabbi Levi Dubov, who serves as co-director of Chabad of Bloomfield Hills with his wife, Mushky, Chanukah was a time to learn valuable lessons about money and choices. His parents, Dovid an
d Malky Dubov of Princeton, N.J., gave each of their eight children a sum of money, 10 percent of which they were expected to give to charity.

“We learned about the various charities and chose one we wanted to donate to,” Dubov said. The kids were then allowed to choose how to spend the remainder of their gifts. “We got a real education about making healthy and holy choices.”

While busy parents often buy extravagant gifts to compensate for the lack of time they spend with their children, Kendal urges these parents to keep in mind that a smaller gift accompanied by a promise of time spent together, such as a game you promise to play with them or an art project you will do together, is better than an expensive toy.

Dr. Natasha Kendal

“Remember that Chanukah is not a competition,” Kendal said. “Parents should realize that the most important gift is their relationship with their children. Regardless of what they may ask for, most children would rather have quality time with a parent than a pile of stuff.”

She recommends interactive gifts such as board games, puzzles or other items that encourage families or siblings to play together instead of electronic devices, which tend to separate people. Other ideas are tickets to a family play or concert, or memberships to local museums, the zoo or other places everyone can visit together.

The word “Chanukah” comes from the same root as “Chinuch,” which means education, according to Itty Shemtov, education director at The Shul in West Bloomfield. Shemtov encourages parents to engage children by explaining the historical context of the holiday through books or a family game of dreidel, where parents can explain how the letters relate to the Chanukah story.

Kendal also believes it is important to encourage children to buy gifts for their siblings as well as their parents and grandparents.

“It gets them in the habit of giving to other people, and it teaches them the pleasure that comes from making someone else happy,” she said. *

By Ronelle Grier | Contributing Writer

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