Emigre teens connect to Judaism while helping others

Galina Kogen, a 10th-grader at Leadership High School in San Francisco, never knew about Chanukah when she was growing up in Russia. "My grandparents live in Menorah Park. Every year when they get a Chanukah bag, they feel good, connected to the community," she said.

"In Ukraine, I never got to do Jewish holidays. I'm learning, and I like it," said Elena Grankina, a freshman at City College of San Francisco. "I think we should get more teens involved with this — to socialize, to learn and to help others. It's important not to be selfish."

In San Francisco, members of the JFCS board and the agency's Heritage Circle endowment program and their children packed 140 bags. Those were delivered to Jewish nursing home residents by volunteers from the agency's Families Together program.

Members of the Congregation Rodef Sholom Sisterhood and JFCS volunteers packed bags for Marin County seniors. In Sonoma County, volunteers from JFCS' Project SAFE friendly visiting program put together 130 more bags, while volunteers from Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo wrapped 500 chanukiot and other gifts to be given to new emigres.

"Experiences like this, where teens are part of a larger community effort, are so important because they foster a sense of connection to something larger than themselves," said Rachel Kotok, coordinator of JFCS' Teens Take Action community service program.

"The story of Chanukah is really about the struggle to change the world and make it a better place. When teens learn that they can be part of repairing the world, it empowers them for the rest of their lives."

JFCS is still looking for volunteers to help with a Chanukah party co-sponsored by the Jewish National Fund at noon, Sunday, Dec. 20 at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. For information, call Sheryl Groden at (415) 561-1244.

The agency also can use donations of Chanukah gelt to sweeten the holiday for people who are experiencing difficult times. Send checks to Chanukah Drive, c/o JFCS, 1710 Scott St., S.F., CA 94115.