For years, Linda Perry would not permit her daughter, Yocheved, to go trick or treating. Like a number of observant Jewish parents, Perry felt Halloween’s roots in pagan rituals and the Christian calendar made it taboo.
“It was always clear to me that Halloween is a religious holiday,” said the Caldwell resident.
But for the first time this year, Perry is allowing Yocheved, 12, to take part in the house-to-house Halloween tradition, the result of a suggestion from Rabbi Francine Roston about the Free the Children’s We Scare Hunger campaign.
On Oct. 31, dressed up as a giant heart that says “Best friends,” Yocheved and her best friend will go trick or treating, not to solicit a haul of candy, but to collect canned food for the needy. The food will be donated to the Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges.
As the end of October approaches, while many rabbis and day schools are busy reminding parents and their children that Halloween is off limits, Roston, of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, has always taken a different approach.
She doesn’t believe in telling people not to let their children take part in Halloween. “That shuts down dialogue,” she said. “I’d rather say, ‘Look, if you’re going to do Halloween, why not merge Jewish observance with it?’ In my congregation, I urge people to use Halloween as a time to get to know their neighbors and to get to know their community.”
She has long held that Halloween is more about community than religion, a night when neighbors of different faiths and backgrounds can literally open their doors to strangers, have a little harmless fun, and appreciate one another’s kids.
There’s a similar spirit behind the food drive. Roston discovered Free the Children’s We Scare Hunger campaign when a bar mitzva student at her synagogue wanted to contribute to the organization as part of his mitzva project.
By supporting it through her synagogue, We Scare Hunger “takes Jewish values and elevates Halloween from what is really a base, self-oriented tradition of asking people for candy,” Roston said. “I think it’s a really great way of putting some meaning and more significance into Halloween than just getting a bunch of candy. And it’s a good way to get kids to do something positive.”
Perry, a member of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, had a conversation about Halloween with Roston at a “flash mob” Roston organized in support of Women of the Wall’s Anat Hoffman (see story, page 22). When Perry heard about We Scare Hunger, she knew she had found a way to transform the holiday’s self-centered goal of “hanging out with friends and scoring candy,” as she put it, into an opportunity to do a mitzva.
Last year, Roston tried to convince her own kids to take up an offer by a local dentist to exchange Halloween candy for dollars. Not surprisingly, Roston laughed, she had no takers. It is unlikely her children will give away whatever candy they do collect this year in addition to cans, but at least this year, she’s got them listening, along with others in the community.
The We Scare Hunger campaign (formerly Halloween for Hunger) was founded in 1988 by Jonathan White, professor of sociology and political economy at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. According to its website, over 290,000 people donated 833,648 pounds of food in 2011, enough to feed 164 families of four for one year.
Asked about the response she’d received so far, Roston responded, “I’ll let you know next week, after Halloween.”
Roston offered one logistical word of caution: Kids who participate will need an adult with a car accompanying them so they have somewhere to stash the cans, which are much heavier than candy.
Cans of food for We Scare Hunger can also be dropped off at Beth El after Halloween.