The pandemic can’t stop the Bergen County Chanukah Toy Drive which will end on Nov. 30. The annual drive, started 28 years ago by Marla Friedman, involves 25 schools and over 25 shuls. Created with the goal of bringing holiday joy to those in need and to inspire a lifetime of giving among children, the organization this year faced unique challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite COVID-19, the drive has grown. “We’ve really expanded—we have over 50 donating organizations,” said Joy Sklar, one of the drive’s organizers. Organizations receiving the gifts include Jewish organizations—Friendship Circle, Jewish Family Services, Project S.A.R.A.H. and more—as well as non-Jewish organizations including the local police, Hackensack University Medical Center and Share the Spirit.
Typically, local Jewish day schools collect toys that are sent to Sklar’s house, which acts as a clearing center to sort and organize the donations. Ultimately, these toys are picked up by participating charities and given to children of all ages in need.
This year, she explained, “everything changed.” While Sklar in the past personally promoted the toy drive at local day schools, this year she pre-recorded a promotional video to be shown at the schools. The silver lining is that she was able to pitch the toy drive to many more than the three or four schools she traditionally visits.
“Usually, we have parent volunteers going into schools to pick up the donations. But this year, they are not allowed in,” said Sklar. Schools are stepping up and making an effort to help out in any way they can, including holding onto the donations longer to ensure COVID protocols are followed.
Though the organization is operating a little differently this year, the goal remains unchanged. No matter how old, children are still encouraged to participate in this chesed—something as small as helping parents choose a gift online has a positive impact. Aliza Gans, a sophomore at Bruriah High School, became involved with the organization for a bat mitzvah project four years ago and was able to donate a new bike from the proceeds of her bake sale. She has participated in the drive ever since; this year, she initiated Bruriah’s involvement with this chesed opportunity.
In years past, children volunteered at the clearing centers to help with the physical labor, carrying heavy bags of toys from trucks to the clearing destination. More organization is required this year. “Capsules” from TABC and Heichel HaTorah will come in groups of about five, compared to the groups of 10 or more in previous years. With fewer people helping out simultaneously, the process is likely to be more time consuming.
Even with the difficulties caused by the pandemic, people are eager to help. In addition to generous donors like Solene Boutique and Carly’s Craze, local high schools are finding their own creative ways to contribute. Ma’ayanot’s faculty incentivized their students to participate by committing to dress up for every particular increment of toys the students donate. At Naaleh, grades are competing against each other and will donate items targeted to teenage girls. TABC is hoping to have a video game tournament fundraiser to raise money to buy sports related equipment, while RYNJ middle school boys plan to have a basketball drive and use the money raised to donate basketballs.
Arguably the biggest impact COVID has had on the drive is the amount of need—for some organizations, the number of families in need has doubled.
Typically, people tend to donate things for young children, but puzzles, gift cards, make-up kits and sports equipment are highly sought out items for teenagers and older recipients. Often, after people clean and clear their basements, they find older items of interest they donate to the drive.
“Absolutely nothing goes to waste,” said Sklar. The toy drive generally does not take specific requests, but an exception is made for the Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities. One year, someone donated an old Walkman—making for a very happy J-ADD member who had requested one.
If you’re looking to donate but aren’t sure what to give, check out bcToyDrive.com. This year, the website has a registry with wish lists from Amazon, Target and Walmart. Donations will be accepted until Dec. 11.