Light of Chanukah glows in Santa Rosa

During the darkest days of the year, Sonoma County day school students, congregants and Jewish agencies put their hearts and heads together to spread Chanukah light into the community.

Armed with new socks, toys and dreidels, they descended upon homeless shelters, senior homes and nursery schools in December to celebrate the season of giving.

Participants included students from the Jewish Day School of Sonoma County, Friendship Circle members, the social action committee of the Reform Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa and Jewish Family & Children's Services in Sonoma.

The kindergartners, first- and second-graders learned that the celebration of lights also is an opportunity to remember the elderly and disadvantaged.

They discovered "that the holiday can also be a holiday of giving help," said Eric Keitel, director of the school.

At Santa Rosa's The Lodge at Paulin Creek senior home, a dozen students presented some 30 Jewish residents with candy, Chanukah songs and a play about the Maccabean revolt. A violinist accompanied the kids' singing and also played pop songs of the 1940s and '50s, to which residents sang along.

Organized by the Friendship Circle, a group of seniors who visit the infirm elderly, the program enabled the students to play the dreidel with the seniors. The seniors kibitzed with them and fawned over their Hebrew, said Bernice Fox, director of the Friendship Circle.

"We could see that they were very touched by the children," Fox said. "Having this as an intergenerational Jewish thing was very meaningful."

Resident Anita Schaie said the children's performance opened floodgates, triggering memories of candlelighting with family and friends.

"I had never seen children play-act and sing the story of Chanukah," she said. "They were all in these costumes and looked like they were from the Middle East."

Schaie, 77, should know. Having fled Nazi Germany during World War II, she lived in Israel for two years after leaving Shanghai, the first stopover on her circuitous route to the United States.

The bubbly senior said it was refreshing to see that the children were getting a Jewish education: "Their Israeli pronunciation was impressive."

But the visit didn't completely quell her worries about the future generation's ties to Jewish culture.

"Kids now are exposed to a multicultural background. There are, of course, mixed marriages. They talk about Chanukah bushes and that's appalling to me.

"We want to give them something to remember," Schaie said. "We don't want Judaism to die."

The day-school students also visited preschoolers at the Congregation Beth Ami-Santa Rosa Jewish Community Center Nursery School to perform their Chanukah play and distribute gift bags.

As part of the adult contingent of the "light" brigade, JFCS of Sonoma collected toys for donation to needy children across the county. And Shomrei Torah congregants gift-wrapped and donated 150 pairs of new socks to the Santa Rosa Homeless Shelter.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.