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    Group says Hanukkah bags bring hope

    Little gifts will be left on the doorsteps of elderly Jewish people, most of whom live on tight incomes.

    By EILEEN SCHULTE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 2000


    CLEARWATER -- Marcia Satinoff grabbed the handles of one of 120 small white gift bags on the table, lifted it up and began pulling items out to show what was inside.

    In her delicate hands she proudly displayed a small golden menorah, a box of slim white candles, a yellow plastic net filled with six or seven golden chocolate coins and a small jar of applesauce.

    Then she pulled out a larger box.

    Uh-uh. It was pancake mix. The breakfast kind. The kind that goes with butter and syrup. The kind Jewish and Christian people alike eat on any given morning.

    "This is wrong," she said.

    It was supposed to be potato pancake mix. The kind that's cooked in oil and goes well with sour cream. The kind Jews eat during Hanukkah.

    It was a minor problem in an otherwise successful but busy Wednesday night for Satinoff, family support services coordinator for Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services.

    She was directing volunteers who were packing gift bags to be delivered to elderly Jewish people in time for Hanukkah. The holiday, which also is known as the Feast of Lights, begins Thursday evening with the lighting of the first candle on the menorah.

    It commemorates the victory of the Jews over unjust ruler King Antiochus, leader of Syria. During the battle, a small army of fighters led by the Maccabee brothers were able to drive the enemy out of the holy temple in Jerusalem. But during its occupation, the temple had been desecrated, and the Maccabees decided to work to clean it of Syrian idols and rededicate it to God.

    They wanted to light their holy lamps, but there was only one small cruse of oil, enough only to last one day. Yet the oil burned for eight days, something Jews consider a miracle. They celebrate it each year by exchanging gifts and making contributions to the poor.

    Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services has been collecting the gift bag items for the occasion from local Jewish women's organizations, synagogues and schools.

    The bags will be left on the doorsteps of some older Jewish people, most of whom live on incomes so tight that buying anything extra -- even a traditional main course of brisket to go with the pancakes -- is out of the question.

    But it's not what's in the bags. It's the thought.

    "They are so excited because someone remembered them," said Bobbi Rosenberg, a volunteer packer. "That's why I like to concentrate on seniors. They are forgotten."

    Bobbi Baron, a fellow volunteer packer standing nearby, echoed the sentiment. "They're alone," she said.

    When asked whether this bag would be the only thing they would receive for Hanukkah, she replied, "Probably."

    "We just knock on the door and say we're here," Satinoff said. "Some of them say, "Come in.' Then the tears start rolling down their faces."

    To some of them, it's a miracle that someone has appeared out of nowhere bearing a gift, and Hanukkah is a time of miracles, said Michael Bernstein, president and chief executive officer of Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services.

    "The highest form of giving is to give for the sake of giving," Bernstein said. "Not as a do-gooder, but as an obligation."

    According to Bernstein, the Pinellas County area has the second-highest concentration of Jewish people 75 and older in the United States.

    "For the folks that retired here, 65 was considered old age," said Joan Benjamin, administrator for Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services. "Not anymore. Now people 75 and 80 years old are looking forward to their hundredth birthday with enthusiasm."

    While they may have a strong survival instinct, many of them are frail, isolated, depressed. They call Jewish Family Services when they are desperate for help, and the agency responds.

    "Tikum olam means repairing the world," Bernstein said. "Tzedakah means offering charity to the needy. They are the two underpinnings of Judaism."

    Evelyn Hosch, 80, and her husband of 58 years, Maurice, 83, who live at Menorah Manor in St. Petersburg, are on the list to receive a gift bag.

    "Thank goodness for them," Mrs. Hosch said. "They keep the holidays alive for seniors. They call and visit and make it bearable."

    The Hosches' neighbor, Pepi Feuerberg, 86, who fled the Holocaust and came to the United States in 1941, also is on the list to receive a gift bag. She won't light her menorah because it is a fire risk.

    Still, she said in a Polish accent, "It means an awful lot" to receive one as a gift.

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