Jewish groups adopt families for holidays

Though they celebrate Chanukah rather than Christmas or Kwanzaa, many Marin Jewish individuals and families are joining the season of sharing by "adopting" less fortunate families for the holidays.

This year, members of Marin synagogues and other Jewish community organizations are helping to make the Canal Holiday Connection program, a project of the Canal Community Alliance in San Rafael, a resounding success.

"Adopt-a-family" pairs 250 sponsors with 352 low-income families, to provide recipients with holiday gifts that they could not otherwise afford. Sponsors range from individuals and families to schools, churches, restaurants, fellow charitable organizations, and local community-minded companies such as LucasArts and Birkenstock.

"This year, it was kind of a miracle," says Betty Dietz of the Canal Community Alliance, a nonprofit agency providing social services in the primarily low-income Canal district of San Rafael. "It's the first year we've gotten everyone adopted out this early.

"Normally, I'm still scrambling around into the first week of December, but by Thanksgiving we had everybody out. We had an overwhelming response. Everybody wanted to do this this year."

Marin Jewish community organizations, including Congregations Kol Shofar in Tiburon and Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, the Marin Jewish Community Center, and Brandeis Hillel Day School, helped spread word of the program to their respective constituencies.

"Repairing the world, tikkun olam, or doing mitzvahs, is such an important part of being Jewish," says Moji Javid, program director at Rodef Sholom. "We want to give our congregants an opportunity to live that, whether it's adults or kids."

The congregation participates in at least two charitable community programs each month, but is involved in four this month.

"We appreciate what it is we have, and we give to others," says Javid. "We really care about the community we live in, and we really find it important to give back to our community."

Recipient participants sign up for the program in October, supplying the Community Alliance with lists of names of family members, clothing sizes and even wish lists. Gifts for adults are optional, but most sponsor families do choose to provide for the entire family, according to Dietz.

The sponsors receive the information and bring the gifts to the Community Alliance in mid-December, for pick-up by the recipients a few days later. Recipient families are often somewhat shy about meeting their sponsors, but they do write very enthusiastic thank-you letters, says Dietz.

"Everybody gets a little something," she adds, "including the sponsors."

The Canal district is a diverse neighborhood of roughly two square miles in San Rafael, surrounded on two sides by water (San Pablo Bay and the canal itself), and on the other two by freeways 101 and 580. While light industry abounds, around 10,000 people — mostly working-class, immigrant families — live in the area. Though predominantly Latino, the Canal is also home to immigrants from Vietnam, Russia, Iran, Ethiopia, Southeast Asia, and Central America. At least 20 different languages are spoken there.

The Canal Community Alliance, founded in 1981, works to improve the lot of area residents by providing advocacy, English as a second language and citizenship classes, subsidized childcare and after-school programs, a teen center, and an emergency food pantry.

The Canal Holiday Connection serves a dual purpose — helping local residents and encouraging non-residents, who often shy away from the ethnically-diverse area, to visit.

While the Canal Community Alliance is pleasantly surprised to be fresh out of families to sponsor, Dietz encourages year-round tzedakah in other forms — from volunteering time, to making donations of gifts, toys, food and money.

Anyone who wants to adopt a family next year, she says, had better get involved early.

For more information, call the Canal Community Alliance at (415) 454-2640.