The candlesticks were a wedding present. The Kiddush cup my mother brought back from a trip to Israel. The menorah the kids made in preschool. Judaism has a lot of ritual objects that hold specific meaning and family stories. In an ideal setting we’d each be bequeathed some important item, perhaps it was smuggled out of Europe or given to great grandparents on their wedding. In reality, we don’t all have family members to hand down items to us at the exact moment we are ready to receive them in life. There are plenty of reasons the ideal is anything but normal. Many parents are not ready to part with their items at the time their children leave the nest, converts, and people who grew up more culturally Jewish might never have anything they’d expect to one day own coming from their families. While it can be lovely to be able to hand pick out all your own ritual items, it can also be very costly for young adults and people who are coming into Judaism at any stage in life.
The other side of the problem is that sometimes there is no one to take the treasured items. When a family member dies or needs to move into a smaller home and reduce possessions, there is a lot of comfort in knowing that your things will be used and loved. Children or grandchildren have already established their own items, or there simply isn’t enough family to take everything from one generation down to the next. Those items might end up in a general second-hand store or even thrown away.
Adam Schwartz, who recently earned a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, was attending a family funeral when he realized there was a need on both sides and perhaps putting to the two together could fulfill a mitzvah.
Last May after seeing an elderly family member in distress because no one in the family wanted her prized Kiddush cups, Schwartz started with a simple question on social media:
“Here are 2 problems in the Jewish Community: 1) We don’t make converts feel welcome enough in the short and long term. 2) As older Jews die their ritual objects are often discarded into piles in synagogues, given to grandkids who don’t want them or sent to thrift shops, who throw them out because they don’t know what they are. I’m interested in solving these problems by organizing a collection of surplus Judaica and then giving them to new Members of the Tribe, with a note explaining the history of that particular piece. This will help tie them into their new heritage. Thoughts?”
The response was overwhelming (235 likes, 146 comments) and he realized this was something the Twin Cities needed. He started with a Facebook group called Heritage Judaica-Twin Cities and began taking requests as well as donations. Before long it was clear his apartment was about to be overwhelmed with stuff and it was time to move to the next stage.
Since June, he’s given out approximately 65 items to a mix of immigrants from secular backgrounds who want a tie to their heritage, Jews-by-Choice, young people starting their own home, people from either side of intermarried families (either to the non-Jewish partner who wants something Jewish of their own, or a Jewish person who wants to add more Judaism to their family), people who fled an abusive situation (partner or parents) and left their ritual objects behind and other people.
“I’ve heard fascinating stories, like someone who drew a paper seder plate every year and wanted a more durable one, and of people who wanted to perform the mitzvah of Hiddur Mitzvah by using beautiful ritual objects like a proper Kiddush cup instead of a Styrofoam cup. I deeply enjoy meeting people who are part of the larger Jewish community, either those donating spare objects from their or a loved one’s life or those who want to enhance their Jewish practice,” said Schwartz at a recent Shabbat dinner.
Popular requested items have been Kiddush cups, tallises, mezuzahs, tefillin, wall art, candlesticks, seder plates, challah covers, and Havdalah sets. Presumably, many menorah requests will be coming in winter. Interesting objects people have requested include a ketubah, a handwashing cup, and benchers.
He’s had support from Beth Jacob and other synagogues sending him people and asking him to help them clear out their stockpiles of donated items. YALA has offered warehouse storage and a potential grant. The best cases are where people have posted on the Facebook page asking for something and someone else on the page saw it and gave it to them directly, getting to share the history of the item and see the joy it will bring to its new owner.
Schwartz would like to connect with more Twin Cities synagogues and others with the current surplus of ritual items to give to a good home. Long term, he’s working on ways to better track inventory and record the history of each item and spread out the program beyond the Twin Cities.
If you have items to donate, requests for items or want more information, contact Adam Schwartz at [email protected].