Do Orthodox Jews only care for their own? Ask residents of Bergen County, New Jersey, and the answer will be a resounding “no!” Twenty-four years ago, Marla Friedman, an observant Jew from Teaneck, sought out a way to thank the people who helped her special needs son. She figured the best way to express her gratitude would be to pay forward the kindness she had received, and thus the Bergen County Toy Drive was born.
Uniting every Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and secular Jewish organization in Bergen County, Friedman created the biggest Chanukah toy drive in the Tri-State area. Now under the direction of Bergenfield resident and fellow Orthodox Jew, Joy Sklar, the Bergen County Chanukah Toy Drive collects and distributes new toys and gifts to Jewish and non-Jewish, Orthodox and non-Orthodox children and young adults who are less fortunate, disabled or otherwise would be neglected this time of year. The drive is entirely volunteer-run; their only overhead is the garbage bags which hold the sorted goods. Sklar, who took over four years ago, relates, “It’s a feel-good mitzvah and goes across every denomination.”
What kind of an impact do these gifts make? As one mother of recipients writes, “I’m literally sitting here crying tears of joy. My kids are going to be so happy. Nobody really ever did anything like that for them. A personal package wrapped up so beautifully…there are no words to express how much we appreciate it.”
The recipients of the toys range from Tomchei Shabbos and Jewish Family Services to group homes with special needs adults and the wards of children’s hospitals. “All of the donating organizations are Jewish. Every Jewish school and synagogue in the area, even from Manhattan, and Forest Hills (Queens).” Local kids and teens come to sort and pack the toy so that children get to be involved in the givin. The recipients, which include the charities Bikur Cholim, Tomorrow Children’s Institute at Hackensack Hospital, Yachad, Bris Avrohom, Chai4Ever, JADD and Sinai Group Homes, Friendship Circle, Ohel Children’s Home, Sharsheret, Project Ezrah, along with Chai Lifeline, OTSAR, iShine, Shelter Our Sisters and Teaneck and Bergenfield Police Athletic Leagues are all attended to first. The rest is given to the local police departments to distribute to the needy thereafter.
The gifts run the gamut from expensive and in-demand Magna-Tiles and Legos, to the Yankees paraphernalia and Lawrence Welk DVDs that were requested by a special needs resident at a group home. Gift certificates are popular, especially with teens, who are notoriously hard to shop for. Every contribution is directed to the charity that it could help most. The drive is especially sensitive to underprivileged kids in their bar / bat mitzvah year as their affluent friends are getting expensive gifts. “Tomchei Shabbos tells us when they have kids that age, so we save the special substantial things for them.” They encrypt the delivery to ensure the privacy of the recipients. “We get unbelievable letters.” The response from recipients has been tremendous. “We got a proclamation from the township. A detective from Bergenfield was stunned that I was reaching out to him to donate.”
As awareness of the drive grows, Sklar is thrilled with the creative ways that people are getting involved. “One school created a menorah and added candles every time a certain number of toys were donated…A local boy had a bar mitzvah and asked all kids attending to bring a toy. We once sent 8th graders shopping for things they would like themselves and they brought it to the police department.” Even the benefited organizations themselves getting in on the giving. “Yachad has a vocational program. We and have a group coming to help take price tags off. It’s a good activity for them. OTZAR brings disabled adults from their group home to have lunch and pack up toys. It helps them understand the circle of charity.”
Sklar is proud of how her community is caring for itself and others through the drive. “Being from a Modern Orthodox community, we have a very strong responsibility to bridge the gap between secular and religious. A sick child, it doesn’t matter where they come from. A poor person, it doesn’t matter who they are.” Sklar takes this attribute of giving directly from the Torah. “To learn all about our forefathers and not take lessons from it, what are you learning for? We try to help them. That’s what it’s all about. God put us on this earth to help each other.”
Update: Now that the toy drive has been running for 28 years, Sklar reflected on the fact that when it began, Friedman used the opportunity of toy drop off to teach children the value of giving. She would say “You are such a mitzvah boy and you are putting a smile on someone’s face.” Sklar’s own children couldn’t wait to go give toys to the drive because of the positive feedback they received. “They are never too young to [learn how to give] and think about other people and not just themselves,” says Sklar. The tradition has only grown as does the reach of the drive. Over 10,000 gifts now service more than 20 charities. Despite the challenges that Covid-19 presented, this has been their most successful year yet. “People want to be useful and help others. It’s a beautiful thing.”