By Harriet P. Gross
When I lived in Chicago, Rosen’s was the name synonymous with rye bread. But the company wasn’t as smart as the New York bakers who began advertising widely — and successfully — “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Jewish Rye.”
This week, I’m remembering the slogan but not particularly the product, since I think a reversal of its premise, linked to another “product” altogether, would be happily applicable during this Chanukah-Christmas season: “You don’t have to be Christian to love the Salvation Army’s angel trees.”
I know about the program because I’ve worked at the NorthPark Center angel tree for the last four years with my Rotary Club. It’s one of the ongoing projects we take on with our Rotary Pledge: “Service Above Self.”
There is nothing quite like watching people come up to the tree bedecked as it is with names of hundreds of children who wouldn’t have much of a holiday season without this major annual effort. They come. They read the tags, each bearing the first name of a needy child and specifying two gifts: one “needs,” one “wants.”
They study these tags for some time before choosing one — or sometimes two or even more, especially if the kids belong to the same family: Siblings are linked together on the tree, with a number (not a surname) identifying them.
You see, this is a truly personal effort on a massive scale. Salvation Army puts up trees covered with tags in at least seven Dallas-area malls and hundreds more across the country. Volunteers verify everything.
The program works like this: People take a tag to a desk and sign a pledge to return the requested items by a specified date. Every child’s wish is fulfilled by using red plastic bags, one for each, into which everything for that destination goes, with an identifying label on the outside.
Then into the warehouse it moves, where everything is sorted by even more volunteers and readied for holiday delivery.
On the trees, the kids are the “angels,” and everyone is asked to pick one or more angel for this very “special delivery.” But the truth is, the real angels are those who choose a child and make the wishes come true. (Even babies have “wishes,” provided by parents or guardians, for a necessary piece of clothing and an age-appropriate toy.}
Let me tell you a few joyous Angel Tree stories coming from my annual stint at NorthPark:
First, the tale of a young man who stood before the tree for a long, long time, debating which of two “angels” who intrigued him should be his chosen “giftee.”
Finally, “Bob” won out. The young man signed his paper and walked away, promising to return with everything for his choice within an hour. But as he left to shop, he kept looking backward toward the tree. Finally, he couldn’t stand it any longer:
“Oh, I just can’t leave ‘Ben’ there,” he said, signing up a second pledge paper and leaving to do more shopping than he’d planned.
Lots of people bring their children with them every year, to get the feel of giving. One did something I thought was a very impressive teaching tool: She had her small son pick out a name, a boy. too, and just his own age, and took him shopping immediately. Just as immediately then, she returned to the tree, spread out the purchased gift under it, seated her son with them and took a great picture certainly destined to become a happy holiday memory.
And I was lucky to be there on the right day at the right time when a women came by with her check for $1,000 and enlisted me in helping her figure out just how far that amount would go.
“I do this every year,” she told me. I felt so lucky to have been her designated assistant. “This is my Christmas gift to myself.” Those who fear that the true spirit of the season has been lost can find it again, right here at the angel tree.
So now comes the logical question: Why don’t I do this same kind of thing for our local Jewish community’s many holiday drives? Well, in fact, I do. But there’s something special to me in remembering that the man who founded Rotary did it to get people acquainted with their broader communities and their own local needs.
And that he’d made had made sure someone of each major religion was included in his initial plans. He didn’t know, 100 years ago, how far that little candle would shed its beams.