“Shopping” is not one of the skills listed on my resume. But I would like to give you a Hanukkah gift idea which will not only be one of the best presents you ever give to someone you love, but will be one which is remembered long, long after every other gift is forgotten.
The gift is a savings account established with one, specific purpose: to begin to fund a trip to Israel for the recipient.
As I write this in late October, Israel is (once again) going through difficult times. But one of the most important things I have learned about the Middle East is that “Ha-Matzav” – “The Situation” – changes faster than Florida weather. The other thing I have learned from the five trips Shira and I have led to Israel is that every participant who was asked, “How can you go there now?” came home wondering what all the fuss was about. Take a look at the Israel trip pictures hanging on the wall in the temple and ask any of the participants if they were scared at any point in their trip; I guarantee you their answer will be “no!”
The real obstacle to a trip to Israel is the cost, mostly because there is no way to travel across two oceans by bus. And while college students can avail themselves of a Birthright Israel trip, there are other options which are much more rewarding – and yes, more expensive. So whether you are thinking of the perfect gift for a child or an adult, please read on…
The National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) offers four- and five-week summer trips to Israel for high school students. Many of them begin in Eastern Europe, bearing witness to the degradation of the ghetto and Auschwitz, then traveling by boat to Israel as our people did after the Holocaust. Once in Israel they travel the country meeting real people – Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Israeli Christians – while choosing among options which focus on nature, social justice, politics or the creative arts. Four weeks in Israel presents so many more opportunities to learn and connect than a 10-day Birthright trip, and I recommend these trips very strongly. We give every Bar and Bat Mitzvah a gift certificate toward the cost, but it is still expensive, so a Hanukkah present toward it – whether the recipient is 3 or 13 years old – will help to make this dream come true when they are in 10th, 11th or 12th grade. Check it out at nftyisrael.org/videos.
Grownups don’t get the advantage of subsidies when we travel, so here, too, advance planning (and saving) can make “Next year in Jerusalem!” into an itinerary, not just a line in the Haggadah. Shira and I are in the first stages of planning the next congregational trip for the summer of 2017, so giving your loved ones – and maybe yourself, too – a Hanukkah gift toward this or any other trip will help make it possible. Our trip, which we hope to lead in conjunction with the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, will be oriented toward couples, families and extended families – our last trip had several three-generation families and everyone loved the experience. We will, of course, see the “highlights” of Israel, but we always try to include things which are not on the usual itinerary. It helps to travel with people who have friends there, and one of the best parts of any trip to Israel is that you will have friends there once you go!
How can I be so sure that this will be one of the best Hanukkah gifts you will ever give? Because my Uncle Gene, zichrono livracha, gave this gift to me when I was a young teenager. In the summer of 1969 I cashed in that savings account and went to Israel with NFTY. The trip was literally life-changing for me and for my traveling companions from across the United States. I still remember dozens of experiences, hundreds of emotions and all the people I traveled with – so much so that last year Shira and I met with one of the others from that trip whom I had not seen in 45 years, and we sat and reminisced for hours. I can honestly say that I don’t really remember any other Hanukkah present I received as a teenager, but I will remember that one as long as I live.
So as you try to think of the perfect gift for your child, your grandchild, your partner, your friend or maybe even yourself, I encourage you to consider giving the Best Hanukkah Gift Ever. Start a fund – not just a check to them, but an actual fund, even if it’s earning almost no interest right now. Designate it as the “Israel Trip Fund” so it doesn’t get used for a new video game (or new furniture), and add to it whenever it’s time for another present – or just when you feel like it. Then, when the time is right, the recipient can cash it in to go on their firsttrip of a lifetime. The first because, as anyone who has been to Israel will tell you, we can’t wait to go back!
Happy Hanukkah. I wish you a bright and beautiful Festival of Lights,
Rabbi Don Weber