For the Jewish community, Thanksgiving offers a special opportunity to be grateful not only for the bounties and comforts of our lives, but especially for the religious freedom we have found in the United States of America.
The Bible was actually very important in the Pilgrims’ lives; some historians have suggested that the first Thanksgiving meal was modeled after our pilgrimage festival of Sukkot. They say that when the pilgrims wanted to give thanks to God for helping them survive, they recalled the harvest festival, which they had read about in the Bible (Deuteronomy 16:13-17), and used our Sukkot celebration as their model.
Giving thanks has always been an important part of Judaism, from reciting blessings after meals to thanking God for the creation of the world and our many blessings in it. There are many ways that we can add a meaningful Jewish component to our family celebrations. Thanksgiving also gives us a wonderful opportunity to perform mitzvot (good deeds). Helping those less fortunate is a classic Jewish way to show appreciation for our own blessings. Thanksgiving is a perfect time to donate food to an organization that fights hunger or to volunteer at a community charity that provides a Thanksgiving dinner for the poor or elderly.
Perhaps your family could participate in an adopt-a-family-for-Thanksgiving program (you can find out about this through your synagogue or local food bank). Then try these ideas:
- Plan the Thanksgiving menu and make a grocery list together.
- As a family, go to the grocery store and buy the items on your list.
- Together, bring your groceries to the food bank or other sponsoring organization. It adds meaning to the mitzvah when your children see where the food is actually going to be distributed.
- Add Jewish flavor to your Thanksgiving celebration by saying the Hebrew blessings over the wine and bread.
- On Thanksgiving, take turns going around the table and sharing personal thoughts, like, “Today I am thankful for,” or say or chant the Hebrew phrase, “Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam,” and then add what you are thankful for. For example: “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech haolam…for this beautiful Thanksgiving day.”
- Before starting the meal, have everybody take turns writing or drawing on a large piece of construction paper something he or she is thankful for. When each family member has finished, laminate the work with clear contact paper and use it as a centerpiece placemat. (Write the date in the center and make this a yearly tradition!)
- Have everyone make fruit shapes out of colored paper. Then write or draw a wish for the coming year on each piece of fruit. Younger children can dictate and/or color a picture. When everybody is done, place all the fruit into a basket for a Thanksgiving decoration or put them in an envelope marked with the year and a list of the people who wrote on them. Seal it and save it to be read next year on Thanksgiving, or use it for decorations for next year’s sukkah!
For more children’s activities, visit the URJ’s Holiday Happenings page.