Aaron Tepfer, a’h
Aaron Tepfer, a’h

By Larry Gordon

Who doesn’t love a new toy? Here on the South Shore of Long Island there is now a Chanukah toy drive under way. The chag arrives rather early this year, with the first day of Chanukah coinciding with Thanksgiving.

My guess is that aside from the toy sales, there will be a lot of Thanksgiving turkey being served at Chanukah parties. I understand that in some circles there is a custom to dine on goose over Chanukah, so there may be a little turkey-versus-goose competition taking place as well. Apparently, according to our history books, the Maccabees, after their great and miraculous victory that resulted in one of the Chanukah miracles, dined on a celebratory meal that featured goose and, who knows, maybe all the fixings too. And as you additionally know, when it comes to consuming special or unusual foods, we are willing and cooperative slaves, so to speak, to tradition.

The personality who was–and still is, though she has passed on–the catalyst for the featured toy drive that occurs in the weeks leading up to Chanukah is Rachel Baron, a’h, of Far Rockaway. Though Rachel battled a difficult and debilitating illness for years, her overwhelming, all-consuming concern was the welfare and condition of others.

When she was ill over that extended period of time, she and her family were inundated with toys for children in order to lift up the spirits and mood in the home, particularly during holidays like Chanukah. “Year after year, people and organizations were just sending too many toys and games,” says Nathan Krasnovsky, the executive director of the Jewish Community Council of the Rockaway Peninsula (JCCRP). He says that Mrs. Baron turned to Fraidy Osina, a neighbor in Far Rockaway, and enlisted her assistance in distributing to others the overabundance of Chanukah gifts her family received.

Mrs. Osina says that Rachel was overwhelmed by the generosity extended to her family, particularly around Chanukah, but she would tell Fraidy that she did not understand why it seemed that only people who were ill were the beneficiaries of this toy largesse, while so many of her friends plainly could not afford to purchase Chanukah gifts for all their children.

“That is basically how it got started,” Fraidy Osina says. She explains that people began to organize and donate both money and toys so that families that were struggling economically would still be able to put a smile on their children’s faces at Chanukah. Then, last year, Chanukah arrived in the direct aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which turned the lives of hundreds and perhaps thousands of families upside-down.

“I think that this year’s toy drive has additional meaning and impetus,” Osina says. She explains that this year’s drive is being done in memory of ten-year-old Aaron Tepfer, a’h, who passed away a few months ago after being injured in a tragic boating accident. Ms. Osina says that the young man was her son’s classmate and that Aaron was known amongst his friends–even at such a young age–to be deeply concerned about others, and was especially concerned about the feelings of his friends, classmates, and other children he came in contact with.

There are many good people involved in getting this project going, including a cadre of volunteers who were associated with Project Nivneh, which was organized in response to the storm and has since been disbanded. Mr. Krasnovsky says that, along with Mrs. Osina, some of the others who stepped forward and swung into action to make this toy drive happen are Ilana David, Aviva Paneth, Chaya Gibber, Rocky Stern, Chana Hoch, and Tova Bollag. One of the great supporters functioning largely behind the scenes, but working tirelessly to make it happen, is Yanky Brach of Brach’s Supermarket in Lawrence.

The project is, at present, a joint effort between the JCCRP and the JCC of the Greater Five Towns, which has been under the direction of Joel Block for the last few months. “We can accomplish so much more when our efforts are collaborative,” says Mr. Block. He points out that with the JCC and the JCCRP both being Federation-funded agencies, with one largely serving the Rockaway Peninsula and the other the Five Towns, their reach will be unprecedented.

“Basements were the first area of homes to become flooded during Sandy,” Joel Block says. He adds that, in most homes, young children’s toys are generally stored there. He points out that while toys may have been the first thing destroyed in the flooding, they were likely the lowest priority, and may be the last items to be replaced. “I don’t think any child should have to suffer through this kind of deprivation,” he says, and adds that this is one of the reasons there is so much enthusiasm for this year’s toy drive.

Fraidy Osina says that over the last few years, they may have managed to provide about 60 families with things or toys for Chanukah. This year, with the help of the JCCRP and JCC, she believes that they will be able to touch the lives of over 500 families over the next few weeks.

So what are the mechanics of this effort? In other words, how does this work? Well, Brach’s supermarket is all geared up to collect and accept toys for the pre-Chanukah distribution effort. People are donating either gifts or money for gifts through both organizations. The distribution effort is somewhat more painstaking. Some of the volunteers are reaching out to rabbis of shuls, and principals and teachers in schools, to help identify those who may need this extra boost as we arrive at this Chanukah season. There will be a primary focus on Sandy victims this year, in addition to other families faced with economic and other challenges.

The effort will reach into all area shuls, synagogues, temples, yeshivas, day schools, and Hebrew schools, regardless of affiliation. “People were affected by Sandy and are in need; this is not a time to classify or categorize people,” Fraidy Osina said. “There is great need and people want to be helpful.”

“We have a great team of volunteers,” said Mr. Block of the JCC. “They are extremely enthusiastic about the project and anxious to make it a success.” Mr. Block, who took over from the popular former JCC director Rina Shkolnik, resides in Merrick. His home was destroyed by Sandy, which resulted in his family moving into temporary quarters over the half-year that it took to rebuild. He says that he feels fortunate that they were able to move back home, but understands well that there are many people in this and other areas still suffering from the aftershock of the storm.

The effort this year, Mrs. Osina says, will go beyond the Rockaways and the Five Towns. She says that the toy drive is reaching into communities ravaged by Sandy in areas like West Hempstead, Oceanside, and Long Beach. “There is a great and pressing need in these areas,” Osina says, adding that people are under the mistaken impression that people in the Five Towns are more or less self-sufficient. “There is a demand for this type of assistance and gesture in all these communities and more,” she says.

Recipient families will be identified by rabbis and school personnel. For the most part, Osina says, the entire undertaking is performed with maximum discretion. She says that the way they have done it in the past is that a box of toys or related items is simply dropped off in front of the door of a home, without the deliverer and the recipient seeing one another. “Most of the time, people have no idea where the gifts came from, and we all prefer that it be that way,” she says. With the appearance of this article on the subject, that desire for anonymity may be slightly diminished. As to that change taking place, Mrs. Osina says, “So I guess this year the message to people will be that your neighbors care a great deal about you.” v

Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at editor@5tjt.com.


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