Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Sharing the Sweetness of the New Year

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you 
Happy birthday dear friends 
Happy birthday to you

Birthdays are one of life’s simple pleasures. They don’t celebrate an achievement or accomplishment; rather they celebrate life, existence.

We are about to celebrate a big birthday, the world’s birthday. In addition to marking the New Year, Rosh Hashanah also marks the universe's creation. While it may not feel like a birthday when you're sitting in services, Rosh Hashanah mirrors secular birthday observances. It's a time to take stock of the past year, be with family and friends, eat sweet treats and think about the year ahead.

My family started to get into the spirit of the holiday last Friday evening. With our havurah (a small group of like-minded Jews who gather for Shabbat and holidays, communal experiences, or learning), we volunteered at The Birthday Party Project.

The Birthday Party Project brings joy to homeless children through the magic of birthdays. It partners with shelters and agencies to help children and families experience what it feels like to have someone recognize you simply because you're you. The organization works alongside agencies dealing with the complexities of poverty and homelessness to address some of the emotional needs of children in this situation. As an advisory board member of the group has said, “The Birthday Party Project…says to these kids, ‘Homelessness may be your circumstance, but it is not who you are. You matter. Your dreams matter. You are worth celebrating.’"

So, instead of gathering around a Shabbat table, we gathered to throw a big birthday party. We had crafts and a petting zoo, cakes and gifts for the four children celebrating their birthdays in the month of September, and cupcakes for all. The smiling faces smeared with icing communicated all we needed to know about the impact we made. Watching the children cuddle the animals and play with balloons showed us how joy changes lives.

After the party, we learned that the families we served did not actually live on the street, but were part of a program that provides transitional housing, household management skills, and childcare to participants.

Parents and caregivers have jobs and undergo regular drug testing, the children attend school. The birthday parties help celebrate the fresh start they are making.

As I thought more about these families, I realized that the work they are doing is similar to the work we are asked to do on Rosh Hashanah. They are facing their mistakes, asking for forgiveness, and working to create a better life for themselves and their children. The same things we will be tasked with over the next 10 days.

Volunteering at The Birthday Party Project was a fun mitzvah and a great way to share the sweetness of the Jewish New Year. It was also a real example of what the High Holy Day season is all about.