On Hanukkah’s 5th Night, Let’s Help All Israeli Kids Get Ahead

In what has become a modern tradition in many North American Jewish homes, parents hold back on gift giving for one night of Hanukkah to teach their children “tzedakah,” or the meaning of giving and making a difference. Many families have their children donate money, or gifts, or their time, to a worthy cause.

Fifth Night started in the Boston area and has grown into a national celebration from New Jersey to Texas, allowing families to reframe the holiday’s emphasis on gift giving and to pass on core Jewish values from one generation to the next.

On Fifth Night, families often find wonderful programs in their communities to support, as kids see the impact of their giving firsthand. As someone who has devoted my life to helping those less fortunate, I wholeheartedly applaud this wonderful new Jewish practice.

This year, I want to issue a new challenge to American Jewish families: Ask your children to use Fifth Night to make a big difference not in your local community, but in reshaping the future of the homeland of the Jewish people – Israel.

You likely may not realize that Israel – the entrepreneurial high-tech “Startup Nation” – actually suffers from a serious social issue that even few Israelis recognize: many Israeli kids do not enjoy the basic privilege of a healthy, nutritious breakfast.

In Israel, most children head to school each morning with at least one breakfast sandwich, which they consume during a morning break. But many families in lower-income brackets suffer from food insecurity – the inability to regularly access healthy food. As a result, an estimated 21,000 kids go to school daily without any breakfast sandwich.

That means 21,000 Israeli kids are going to school every day unprepared to make the most of the one opportunity they have to break the cycle of poverty by doing well in school and creating opportunities later in life. Hungry, without basic nutrition to fuel their brains and bodies, these children, from lower-income or dysfunctional homes, attend school tired and unfocused, unable to really learn.

That’s where my nonprofit organization, Nevet, comes in. We provide 8,000 Israeli schoolchildren in grades one-12 at 130 schools across our small country with a nutritious sandwich every morning. These simple sandwiches – often just cheese and pickles on a roll – actually remain the critical key to our philosophy that a healthy breakfast not only provides a nutritional anchor but paves the way to effective learning and – ultimately – the access to greater social opportunities and mobility.

We’ve managed to improve economic opportunities for many children with a healthy breakfast, but we still have 13,500 children on our waiting lists – there due to a lack of resources. The problem could deepen, since according to Israel’s National Insurance institute, more than 800,000 Israeli children live below the poverty line. Moreover, a recent OECD survey of literacy in math, reading and science among 15-year-olds in 72 countries found Israel shows the greatest gap in academic performance between students of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.

We know that providing a simple but nutritious breakfast sandwich can go a long way to fighting this little-known problem. We know because we’ve seen the results: 96 percent of school principals we surveyed said students who received our breakfast sandwiches showed a marked improvement in their academic performance, and 83 percent of principals reported improved school attendance rates due to the program.

We want to make an even better impact and help all Israeli kids get ahead. Imagine the kind of difference we could make if, on the Fifth Night of Hanukkah, which is December 16 this year, Jewish homes in North America learned about making a difference in Israel and did something about it.

This holiday, encourage your children to forego one night of gifts to benefit those less fortunate than them. By supporting Nevet, you can help us change the future of the Jewish state.

About the Author
Rotem Yosef is Vice President of Strategic Development for the Israeli nonprofit Nevet. She has a degree in law and a bachelor’s degree in government, diplomacy and strategy from IDC Herzliya. Before joining Nevet, she worked in the Knesset legal department for the labor, welfare and health committee, and founded a volunteer organization called “The Third Generation for the Golden Age,” aimed at teaching computer skills to senior citizens.