When Dana Schrager’s children were growing up, an important part of the family’s Chanukah tradition was shopping for gifts for children they did not know.
Longtime members of Congregation Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, the Schragers eagerly participated in the synagogue’s Wishing Wall gift program each year. “They would pick a wish for another child, and that would be one of their Chanukah gifts,” Ms. Schrager said. “For one night, that was their gift — it wasn’t about what they got, it was about that they were giving to a child in need. We would go shopping as a family.
“It was a fun time.”
The Wishing Well — a joint program the synagogue runs with the Anshe Emeth Community Development Corporation — is a way for Anshe Emeth’s congregants to give gifts to local children who otherwise might not get any.
A wall designed to resemble the Kotel, the Western wall in Jerusalem, goes up in the synagogue lobby in early November, Heather Nover, AECDC’s executive director, said. Organizers fill the wall with notes, each containing a wish list for one child.
Deborah Cherniss is one of AECDC’s founders and served as its president for 20 years. She said the creation of the organization “was inspired by a High Holiday speech given by Rabbi Miller in 1998” — that’s Rabbi Bennet Miller, who led Anshe Emeth at the time and is now the synagogue’s rabbi emeritus. “Rabbi Miller talked about the need to reach out to the community around our New Brunswick location and to be part of the community, to meet the needs of the community,” Ms. Cherniss said.
The AECDC began operating in 2000, loaning durable medical equipment, such as walkers, wheelchairs, and canes, and helping people obtain health insurance. In 2005, organizers added a program to meet the needs of infants and their parents, distributing diapers, wipes, and formula to local residents who needed them.
Ms. Cherniss is a social worker, and her professional background is in early childhood emotional development. In her professional capacity, she had been involved with a lot of community agencies that served poor families and she had worked with programs for teen parents. “I knew the things that could get in the way of young mothers going to school or work,” she said. “Not only things like childcare — just not having what they needed to take care of their babies, not having diapers” was an impediment. She saw the infant program as “an opportunity to meet some of the needs that I had been so frustrated by when I was trying to help the families as a staff person.
“Day cares require disposable diapers,” Ms. Cherniss continued. “You can’t leave your child if you don’t have disposable diapers. So if you run out of diapers, the child can’t go to daycare, and you can’t go to work or school. It’s got this really devastating domino effect.”
In 2010, the infant program became the Central Jersey Diaper Bank. AECDC stopped the medical portion of its program in 2022 — it now partners with a local agency that runs medical programs and refers requests for equipment to that agency — and the diaper bank became the development corporation’s main focus.
In 2007, AECDC started the Wishing Wall. “The CJDB had all these clients that were living at the poverty level,” Ruthie Hass, a congregant and one of the original chairs of the program, said. “The AECDC board thought it would be nice to give them holiday gifts.
“Anshe Emeth is located in the heart of a very needy neighborhood,” she continued. “It’s part of our tradition to do a mitzvah, and this is one of the most gratifying things that you can do. We encourage temple families to pull a wish from the wall and then have their children shop with them, so they grow up understanding that not everybody gets a Nintendo. Some kids just want necessities.”
Rabbi Miller is very proud of AECDC’s work. After the High Holiday sermon in which he called for this type of a community organization, “a number of the members of the congregation picked up the idea and flew with it, and they created something that is quite remarkable,” he said. “It was created to reflect that from the essence of Anshe Emeth, as a significant religious community in the New Brunswick area, we would be the most profound caring community in the area.
“I think the people in the community know that that is one of the holy and sacred places that cares about everybody in the community, regardless of color or creed.”
The Wishing Wall involves a labor-intensive process that begins in August, Ms. Nover said. It serves recipients up to age 12 who live in Middlesex County. The program distributes gifts to about 100 children. Some of the wishes are for children in families that use the diaper bank. AECDC also partners with local agencies, including food banks and family success centers that serve local residents; many of the notes contain wish lists for clients of those agencies. Organizers try to ensure that each wish list is tailored to the intended recipient by discussing the child’s wants and needs with parents.
Wishing Wall’s partner agencies generally work with parents to compile wish lists, which contain such necessities as coats, hats, and gloves, other clothing, shoes, and blankets; they also include toys or books. Notes generally include such information as a child’s age, gender, clothing size, and favorite colors to help volunteers select gifts.
The program benefits not only the children who receive the gifts, but their parents as well, Ms. Nover continued. “For some of these parents, it would be really hard for them to not be able to give their child a holiday present, and being able to do that makes a difference. You never know what’s going to stick and really impact someone’s life.”
Once the wall with the lists has been put up, “congregant families take notes and shop to fulfill the wishes,” Ms. Cherniss said. Others donate funds to allow organizers to fill in any gaps that arise. “It’s become an extremely popular temple activity. People really feel good about making a little bit of a difference in real people’s lives. It’s all done anonymously — the recipients don’t know who has gotten them the gifts.”
The congregation’s younger members are particularly eager to participate. “The kids, when they see the wall go up, they’re the ones who are telling their parents, we have to grab a wish, we have to go shopping,” Ms. Schrager, who chairs the program, said.
For Ms. Schrager and some of the other volunteers on the committee, it’s after the gifts reach the synagogue that “the magic truly happens.” That’s when the committee starts what it calls “the sort.” There are gifts “from the floor to the ceiling, from wall to wall,” Ms. Schrager said, and as the committee begins to sort and pack, “you see it come to life — children having their wishes granted.”
The items on each wish list are put together in a bag and tied with a festive ribbon. When all the bags are done, “we as a committee get emotional, because we know we just did a most amazing thing for these families.
“Right now, with the way the world is, we need reasons to smile,” Ms. Schrager continued. “And we need reasons to wake up in the morning and feel good. That’s what this does — for the volunteers and the recipients. It’s just really rewarding. We want to teach our children about tzedakah and mitzvahs, and the best mitzvah you can do is for somebody else.
“I love the fact that during the Christmas season we can be little elves — Jewish ones — for other people.”
MaryEllen Firestone is the AECDC’s president. What really attracted her to the organization was “the Jewish value of tikkun olam, healing the world,” she said, and she sees the Wishing Wall as “a total win/win.” The program “strengthens the connection between temple members and the development corporation. It reminds them what we’re doing, that we have all these young families that are trying to make ends meet. It kind of keeps the AECDC’s mission front and center with the temple membership.
“And it really is such a feel-good event,” Ms. Firestone continued. “We are giving 100 children presents at the holiday time, and people feel really good about that. And it’s a little added bonus to the clients that come to our door that they’re able to not worry about what they’re going to give their children for the holidays.”
Rabbi Philip Bazeley joined Anshe Emeth in 2012 as the congregation’s assistant rabbi and now leads the synagogue. He has been involved with the Wishing Wall since he arrived and sees it as a “phenomenal program. It is a wonderful way for us to be able to give back to the community at large, to be able to help people feel whole, and to also be able to be a part of the community around us and not just stay within our own borders.
“I think everybody who’s involved receives something special from it,” Rabbi Bazeley continued. “The wishes that we put in the wall disappeared in record time this year. They were claimed by people volunteering to go out and to buy gifts.
“I think part of what drives people to be a part of this project is the acknowledgment that we aren’t isolated in the world around us. I think there’s a tendency in the world, in the media, and in politics, there’s this drive to isolate people, and there’s this huge sense of identity politics that are at play. I see the Wishing Wall as an active rebellion against this idea, as a way to say that we care about all people, not just our own. That we care about all communities, not just our own. That we are part of society around us, and not just what happens within our temple walls.
“I think this is the rebuke to a world in which everybody is insulated and isolated from one another.”
Rabbi Bazeley’s family always takes a wish, and he feels that “the more that people can give back to the community in whatever way they can, the better the world is.”
And Rabbi Bazeley believes that the Wishing Wall is different from the AECDC’s work throughout the year, but also is very much the same. “The diaper program is about making sure that every parent has what they need to help their kid be healthy and safe,” he said. “When you are choosing between food and diapers, your family can’t flourish. I think the same is true with Christmas gifts and holiday gifts.
“We want to make sure that people aren’t having to choose between being able to sustain a family and helping their families feel cared for. So in a way it’s different, because it’s diapers versus gifts, needs versus wants, but this is also a need as well. This isn’t a want.
“Kids need to feel loved, kids need to feel cared for, and kids need to have necessities as well.
“I’m incredibly proud of our community for doing this, and I hope more communities will join us,” Rabbi Bazeley concluded. “The need is always there. I hope that we will eventually see a time when there isn’t a need, but until that time, we’re here to help out. And if other communities want to join us, we’d love to have them be a part of our giving community.”