Congregation Shaarey Zedek has been spreading Christmas cheer to its neighbours since the year 2000.
At one of the darkest times of the year, in and around the winter solstice, Jewish tradition celebrates the miracle of light during the holiday of Chanukah, which falls on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev and coincides with Christmas Day approximately every 18 years. For the past 20 years, however, Congregation Shaarey Zedek has found a way for the celebration of holiday spirit to coincide on an annual basis. Since 2000, the synagogue has added a new Chanukah tradition, which brings light into the lives of many underprivileged guests who are welcomed at the West Broadway Ministries Annual Christmas Lunch. Lynda Trono, Community Minister, notes that, “Many people in Winnipeg’s inner city do not have the means to provide a holiday meal on Christmas Day – and many do not even have a home to go to.” This luncheon gives guests an opportunity to celebrate the holiday with dignity. “Having a place to celebrate the holiday, surrounded by family and community, is a way of giving people back their dignity,” says Rena Secter Elbaze, Director of Engagement and Education at Congregation Shaarey Zedek.
Preserving people’s dignity is connected to the Jewish concept of “Repairing the World” or Tikun Olam in Hebrew. It is an important universal value in Judaism and calls on the Jewish community to take action to offer assistance to those in need in the broader community. Congregants of Shaarey Zedek, which has been at its current location since 1950, felt that serving a lunch on Christmas Day to the underprivileged was a fitting occasion to act on that value.
“It is beautiful to see three generations of family members come out to spend a day providing for others,” says Elbaze. “Many of these congregants have been doing this together as a family activity for years… it’s not only about giving gifts and going to parties; it’s about experiencing shared values and uplifting others.”
Thanks to the generosity of businesses who donate food for the luncheon such as the Viscount Gort Hotel, Salisbury House, Rae and Jerry’s and Gunn’s Bakery, volunteers from Congregation Shaarey Zedek have been able to provide a hot meal for Christmas lunch to 150–200 people at the West Broadway Community Ministry. Synagogue staff coordinate ordering and collecting the generous food donations, and volunteers prepare the space, heat the food, serve the meals, and clean up as well. The synagogue organizes a food and toiletry drive prior to the lunch that also includes new toys for kids, chocolates, candy, and personal care products like face cream and body lotion. Elbaze works hand in hand with the staff from West Broadway who provide assistance before and during the lunch. She notes that, “Our hope is that every individual there feels a lot of love and warmth on Christmas Day. That means going beyond the bare necessities… It means making people feel special.”
For the past few years the synagogue has been collecting new hats, scarves, and mitts so that guests have something special to take home including a personal gift and any extra food that is packed up for them.
Guests enjoy a delicious, hot meal in an atmosphere of good cheer and share meaningful exchanges with volunteers through activities and games such as “spin the dreidle,” a Chanukah game for children. Rabbi Aníbal Mass of Congregation Shaarey Zedek, along with his family, lead the assembly in lighting the Chanukiah or candelabra and singing traditional Chanukah songs, while other community leaders and elders bring guests together to light the Christmas tree and sing carols.
The Christmas lunch is truly an expression of hope and faith that takes donors, volunteer hosts, and guests to a magical place beyond monetary concerns, social status, and religion for a shared moment in time where we celebrate humanity together.