Chanukah for Hospitalized Children

Copyright Rabbi Eli Hecht
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When I was a youngster I couldn't wait for the bright holiday of Chanukah to arrive.  It was a fun-filled time.  I knew that my family would hold its great get together.  Uncles, aunts and cousins would come to my home where my Bubbie (grandmother) was living.  It was an exciting event to celebrate Chanukah with so many people.  The week before Chanukah Yankel, the grocer, would deliver two 50lb sacks of potatoes and a few gallons of cooking oil.  During Chanukah it is a custom to eat fried foods in oil to remember the oil that was found to light the Temple candelabra (during the story of Chanukah).  My four brothers and four sisters would form a kitchen brigade.  Some of us had the job of peeling potatoes while others were busy grinding them.  My sweet old Bubbie would stand above the old stove burner with five burners going heating up and frying the many potato patties called latkes.  It was quite a chore feeding the many people that attended the Chanukah festivities.

Our family was third generation American born.  In this great land we were free to have as many children as possible.  After all over a million children were killed in World War Two and we felt it was our duty to replenish the world with large Jewish families.  My uncle Yankel Yehudah had 10 kids plus two boys who were adopted when they needed special care and a home.  My other uncle, Peretz, would come with his seven children and then the other uncles and aunts would come together with their children and there were probably some 50 or 60 children running around our little home in Brooklyn. 

The highlight of the evening was when everybody lit the Chanukah candles.  We would gather around, sing songs, play draidel (a Jewish spin top with Hebrew letters) and, of course, we would receive Chanukah gelt.  This is a time honored tradition opf giving silver dollars or coins.  We always looked forward to this event.  During the evening of Chanukah the children played a guessing game trying to figure out whose candles would last the longest.  It took me a few years to realize that when I put the menorah (the candle holder) by the window it would burn brightly but only last a short time.  Since the children placed the menorahs on the radiator not realizing that the heat would radiate and melt the candles.  Opening the toys and packages was a great moment.   For months we would drop hints to our dear parents suggesting to them all kinds of toys that we needed to have.  After all, Chanukah was a childrens holiday.

One year the following incident took place which changed my life and the life of all our families.  My fathers brother, Rabbi Jacob J. Hecht, uncle Yankel Yehuda came to our Chanukah party rather late.  He told us that he had been on the way home when he received a phone call from a hospital to visit a colleague.  Then the following took place.  A nurse stopped him in the hallway and asked if he had a minute to visit the pediatric ward where there was a very sick little boy who came from a poor family, had no visitors and had been hospitalized for quite a while.  My uncle Yankel had the compassion of the whole world, a heart of gold and made time to visit this little fellow, cheering him up and wishing him a happy Chanukah.  As he was leaving the ward he saw a man dressed as Santa Claus arriving with a large bag of wrapped toys for Christmas distribution.  The little boy started to cry realizing, or rather thinking that he wouldnt receive a toy as he was Jewish.  My uncle was flabbergasted.  He quickly went down to the gift shop and immediately bought the boy a large fire truck and wished him a bright Chanukah.

Needless to say we were all saddened by this story and we felt that something had to be done about other children in the same predicament.  At that happy Chanukah party a program was launched called Toys for Hospitalized Children.  A committee was formed between the uncles, aunts, and cousins and during the holiday hundreds of children were soon visited and toys were distributed.  Now Jewish children would feel the holiday of Chanukah.

One day my uncle read a letter from a sick child on his weekly radio show.  It went like this.  I am 9 years old.  I have been very sick as long as I can remember.  This year my family doctor told me I was getting weaker and weaker and I would soon stop living.  I felt so very sad.  On Chanukah you came to visit me and made me happy.  You brought me all kinds of toys and tried to cheer me up but I knew that you were doing this as a mitzvah, a good deed.  I thank you for all the games that you brought.  I am taking my toys and giving them to the sick children on the ward so they too can have toys and I will have a mitzvah.  It has been 40 years that Toys for Hospitalized Children has been in operation.  This year 25,000 toys are being distributed to children during the holiday of Chanukah.  The program has become non-secretarian, serving children from all walks of life.  My dear uncle Yankel has passed away but his dream lives on.  Every year his twelve married children, together with their children and some of their grandchildren visit many hospitals distributing gifts and bringing happiness to thousands of the sick children.

The miracle of Chanukah was when a small group of people, led by a father, Yehudah HaMaccabi and his five sons, rebelled against the tyrant government that occupied the country we call Israel.  Today I see once again the message of how a father, Yankel Yehudah Hecht, and his five sons, my cousins, can change the life of thousands.  I know that when Chanukah arrives we can all bring light and joy to the children.  We must remember those who need our help and gifts.  By helping others we truly celebrate the message of the holiday, a season of joy celebrating life for all. 

A happy Chanukah to all of you.