“I think it would be a surprise to get a Chanukah present you didn’t know you were going to get. And happy. You would have something to play with. I didn’t think there would be very much kids who didn’t get Chanukah presents, but there are some. If we have too many toys, and there are others who didn’t have any toys, I think they would need one. Or if there were enough, they could have even more.”
Six year old Celia Lubin sat in the Memphis Jewish Community Center lobby early Wednesday morning with her mom Brooke, explaining why they approached Memphis Jewish Federation and PJ Library of Memphis with the seed of an idea that grew into the heartwarmingly successful PJ Library Chanukah Miracle Project. This first-time Chanukah toy drive for Memphis-area Jewish children was held early this month, filling box after box with donations for less fortunate families.
In the pure way that only children can, she perfectly described why it matters so much, and why it feels so good, to be a giver.
“I want to make sure everybody in the community, all the kids, I want them to feel good, and be happy. I want everybody to feel happy since the kids that won’t have toys probably aren’t very happy. But if you give them toys, they can play so they don’t have to be bored,” Celia said.
The Lubins have made a December tradition out of participating in the Salvation Army’s annual Angel Tree program, which provides Christmas gifts for more than 5,000 Memphis area children and seniors. It’s a wonderful program that brings pure joy to many, many hearts. But little Celia noticed this year that people were being left out- her own people.
“So, Mommy was talking about doing the Angel Tree and I said: ‘What about kids that don’t get Chanukah presents?’”, said Celia.
“I wasn’t surprised when she came to me with the idea,” her mother Brooke said, beaming at her daughter. “We’ve done Angel Tree in the past. And with Chanukah we always try to give before we get. So we give up toys, or we go buy new toys. So, when she said it, I was like: ‘well, we need to do something about that. What could we do?’”
“So My Mom called Stacy,” said Celia.
That would be Stacy Wagerman, JCP’s development and engagement manager, who oversees the local PJ LIbrary program.
“Brooke Lubin called me and said Celia had a question for me, so she put Celia on the phone,” Stacy said. “Celia said she wanted to do something to help Jewish kids celebrate Chanukah. She wanted to be sure all Jewish kids were going to get Chanukah presents. I said ‘that’s a great idea, let me see what I can do.’”
She was able to do a lot, and it all started with a party at MJCC’s Indoor Playground. An event was quickly organized around PJ Library and Jewish Family Service, inviting community members to bring unwrapped toys, games, art supplies and books to the Indoor Playground for a Chanukah play date and toy drive. Many of the community’s synagogues, schools and other agencies helped as well, setting up donation drop boxes for people that couldn’t attend the toy drive event, and by spreading the word through newsletters, bulletins and social media posts. Turnout at the event was huge, and the satellite drop boxes were wildly successful as well. Most importantly to Celia, the amount of donated gifts exceeded all expectations.
“I hoped we would get donations,” she said. “I’ve never done anything like this before. I like being nice to people.”
Rabbis and agency representatives discreetly identified families that could use a little extra joy this Chanukah, and the gifts are making their way to children’s hands. Chabbad’s Rabbi Levi Klein took gifts to local children’s
hospitals, including a few gifts for an Israeli child receiving treatment at St. Jude. The rabbis at Margolin Hebrew Academy and Bornblum Jewish Community School, and staff at Jewish Family Service helped identify families, and the joy is spreading across the Jewish Mid-South, all because of one six-year-old girl and her generous heart.
This week, Celia visited the JCP offices, and peeked into the giant boxes filled to the brim with toys and games. Sheryl Alexander, JCP’s director of financial resource development, was drawn out of her office by the sound of the young voice. She asked Celia what she wanted for Chanukah this year.
“You mean what do I mostly want?”, she asked, a thoughtful look on her young face.
“Yes, what do you want the most.”
“For my family to be happy and healthy.”
A perfect answer for this year’s Festival of Light. Happy Chanukah, everyone.