CHANUKAH FEATURE: Teaching children the joy of mitzvot at holiday time

Diane Heiman, co-author of "It's a...It's a...It's a Mitzvah," with children at a JCC of Greater Washington book event. (Courtesy Diane Heiman)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Chanukah, when children look forward to getting gifts and gelt, is an ideal time to recall Judaism’s commitment to helping others and tikkun olam, repairing the world.

Two recently published books, “The Mitzvah Project Book: Making Mitzvah Part of Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah … and your Life” (Jewish Lights) and “It’s a … It’s a … It’s a Mitzvah (Jewish Lights)” can help parents and their children find creative ideas for doing good deeds during the Festival of Lights and throughout the year.

“The Mitzvah Project Book” targets preteens and suggests projects that leverage their talents and interests to make the world a better place. The book offers nearly 200 mitzvah project ideas — videotaping an elder’s personal history, crafting decorations for hospital walls and sending care packages to Israeli soldiers, among others — that can be part of a family’s Chanukah activities.

While the book has a young person’s bar/bat mitzvah experience as its starting point, teens and their families will appreciate the many terrific tzedakah projects appropriate for Chanukah.

Focusing on younger audiences, “It’s a … It’s a … It’s a Mitzvah” brings Mitzvah Meerkat and his animal friends to life through a lively introduction of mitzvot. On its colorful pages, young children will see that thoughtfulness and kindness mark the beginning of a Jewish journey and a lifetime commitment to tikkun olam.

Illustrator Laurel Molk presents pictures of adorable animal characters who perform simple good deeds and acts of loving kindness. In each playful vignette, children engage with Jewish wisdom, such as sharing food with the hungry, welcoming new friends and taking care of the Earth.

“What a splendid way to introduce young children to the rich moral vocabulary of Judaism,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, the author of many children’s books. “[It] makes a powerful statement — you’re never too young to be fully engaged with Jewish ideals.”

On Sunday, about a week before Chanukah, Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, Fla., organized a youth program mitzvah day around “It’s a… It’s a… It’s a Mitzvah” that included co-author Diane Heiman reading to the children. Rabbi Jessica Brockman said the book inspired the synagogue.

“We targeted our preschool audience and taught them the important message of doing good deeds and doing it through understanding what exactly a mitzvah is,” she said.

The children collected gently used books for needy kids and made crafts based on the book.

At Congregation Shar’aray in Hingham, Mass., Heiman’s co-author, Liz Suneby, read with a group of children from preschool to second grade.

“I was able to see firsthand the impact of the book,” said the congregation’s cantor, Steven Weiss. “Our own daughter, Breanna, fell in love with the book and was excited to say ‘It’s a … It’s a … It’s a Mitzvah!’ each and every time the phrase appeared. This book is a wonderful way to teach little ones about the different concepts of mitzvot.”

As Chanukah is about miracles — the mystery of one day’s worth of oil burning for eight days and a remarkable victory of the small band of Maccabees against the greater enemy — our sense of wonder during Chanukah can inspire acts of tikkun olam. Emphasizing giving rather than getting is a true reflection of the festival.

Here are eight ways to incorporate mitzvot into a Chanukah celebration:

* Place the menorah in a window as a symbol of hope and affirmation.
* Welcome friends and neighbors over to share latkes.
* Collect gently worn clothing that your family has outgrown to give to the needy.
* Forgo your own gifts and shop for a family in need.
* Share kind words and Chanukah greetings with cards or emails to family far away.
* Plant a tree in Israel through the Jewish National Fund to support the environment.
* Celebrate Shabbat when it falls during Chanukah.
* Pray for peace under the glow of the menorah.