Viewing Thanksgiving as more than an opportunity to stuff themselves with turkey, volunteers across the country are taking steps to bring joy to those less fortunate and, in the process, making the American holiday meaningful for their own families. From New Jersey to California, Chabad-Lubavitch centers, Jewish day schools and after-school programs will be spending this Thursday reaching out to people of all backgrounds with kosher home-cooked meals, donated toys and, perhaps the most important gift of all, friendly company.

In Madison, N.J., Rabbi Shalom Lubin and a team of several dozen volunteers will be delivering Thanksgiving meals to hundreds of seniors and homebound area residents. Currently in its fifth year, the program grew somewhat unexpectedly out of a Passover Seder that Lubin conducts each year for Jewish residents at an independent living facility. Several years ago, one of the facility’s directors approached the rabbi at the conclusion of the Seder to request that he arrange something for the entire residence on Thanksgiving, when many elderly people are alone.

"It was a need I hadn’t been aware of before, but when she asked us, of course I said yes," explained Lubin. "If we can bring someone a little happiness, a little joy, on a day that holds so many memories of better times, then we should."

In the program’s first year, just five people requested meals. The following year, the number of reservations was up to 10. Today, many requests pour in from social workers, coordinators at group homes, and caring individuals.

According to Lubin, the search for volunteers hasn’t been difficult.

“A lot of people would like to volunteer [at the Chabad House] more often, but are busy with work and family obligations,” he said. “On Thanksgiving, no one works, and schools are closed, so this is the perfect chance for parents and kids to volunteer together.”

Volunteers, many of whom sign up as family units, will be given a list of no more than 10 addresses to visit. Such a small amount of recipients per volunteer gives people the opportunity to sit down and chat, providing much needed company.

“If we can bring someone a little happiness, a little joy,” says Lubin, left, “then we should.”
“If we can bring someone a little happiness, a little joy,” says Lubin, left, “then we should.”

Toy Drives and Runs

At the Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach, Calif., a similar Thanksgiving food drive has earned accolades from parents for its emphasis on person-to-person interactions. Each year, students, staff and parents pack food baskets in the lead-up to the holiday and personally deliver them to local shelters and Jewish Family Services. Each basket includes a fresh kosher turkey and other traditional foods.

Currently directed by Alex Greenberg, a parent volunteer, the Huntington Beach project began more than a decade ago.

“I feel the project is one of the most uplifting that we do,” said Melanie Alkov, an administrator at the Hebrew Academy. “It is heartwarming and so well received by the families, and it really teaches students the meaning of” being thankful.

Just south of Huntington Beach, a different drive is underway in Laguna Beach, where staff and students of the Chabad Jewish Center’s preschool and Hebrew school are collecting new toys to donate to children. Chai Lifeline, an organization that helps chronically or terminally ill children and their families, will distribute the donations.

According to Rabbi Noach Pawliger at CTeeN, an umbrella organization that coordinates teen programming at Chabad Houses worldwide, toy drives like the one in Laguna Beach have gained in popularity. In a number of cities, he said, CTeeN participants will be visiting local hospitals, bringing gifts to cheer up pediatric patients over the holiday.

“We designed a craft project where each teen takes a cube and writes in it all the things they are grateful for in their lives,” explained Pawliger. “The culmination of the project is getting teens to look at what they have, including their own talents and their resources, and to think about how they can make a gift of themselves by giving back to the world. The Thanksgiving packages are a part of that giving back.”

Elsewhere in Southern California, Rabbi Zalman Carlebach and a team of volunteers will wake up early Thanksgiving morning to participate in the annual Pure Fitness Run for the Hungry. The event, which attracts approximately 4,000 registrants each year, will benefit the S. Diego Food Bank as well as Jewish Family Services’ Foodmobile project.

“This is all part of the meaning of Thanksgiving, and of the word itself,” asserted Pawliger. “It is about giving of yourself to the community as an expression of gratitude for what you have.”