What should I do if my child is in school and the teachers are making him do a bunch of Christmas things like decorating the tree and making ornaments? Do I let him participate? We are a Jewish family and I am concerned. I don't want him to be forced to do Christian religious things, but I also don't want him to feel isolated and left out.
One of my colleagues, Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb, once wrote in Moment Magazine on the topic of Christmas celebrations in schools that, “living in multiple civilizations is a mixed blessing.” I could not agree more. And as a parent of young children myself, I know how difficult it is to navigate through the trenches of the holiday season!
I grew up in the Midwest – in Nebraska. Although it was many years ago, I still recall in my kindergarten class when Santa came to visit. He asked me to sit on his lap and when I said that I couldn’t because I was Jewish, he told me that then I wouldn’t get any presents or a candy cane. Although it seems small, for a 5-year old it was fairly traumatic; enough that I still remember the experience 26 years later.
Various court rulings have determined that, for better or worse, many of the items we identify with Christmas (reindeers, Santa, wrapped presents, trees, etc) are not religious symbols, but rather symbols of the season. Because of that, there is often little that can be done to remove the over-observance of Christmas from public schools and institutions. The question then becomes whether or not your child should participate in those activities.
That is not to say that religious observances of Christmas in public schools is acceptable. I draw the line at attempts to introduce religion into public education through solely religious carols, nativity scenes, or other times when the religious observance of one holiday is expressed over another. Although in certain instances, it is legal to simply ask children to withdraw from a certain observance that makes them uncomfortable, I find that pulling a child from a party to do some other activity is at the very least incredibly insensitive. It is important to stand up for the values of inclusion and comfort, even if you don’t always succeed.
In my mind, these are intensely personal decisions and largely depend on the nature of your child. Are they curious about the holiday? What is the nature of their Jewish identity? Does your family make up include relatives that celebrate Christmas in a religious capacity? It seems that those answers might greatly impact how you would proceed. In our own parenting, I can tell you that my partner and I decided to allow our daughters to inquire and question about holidays. They can experience holidays with their non-Jewish friends in lots of ways. When they feel uncomfortable, they certainly tell us. We try to listen to them and follow their lead. At their age (preschool) they are still exploring their own identity. They understand that Christmas is not their holiday, but that many of their friends do celebrate it. We made efforts to read about Christmas so they understand it, and also to read lots of stories about the holidays that we do celebrate.
One thing I often see families doing that I find not as helpful is trying to pump up Hanukah to combat Christmas. It is, frankly, a tough sell for me to argue that the two holidays are equal in importance, or should be for our children. While we celebrated Hanukah each evening with gifts, songs, and holiday foods, we were also clear that Hanukah is a relatively small holiday in the Jewish calendar.
Personally, as a parent, I value the multi-cultural nature of our society. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan taught that living in multiple civilizations is one of the blessings of the modern world. We should encourage the celebration of what makes us unique in various ways, including our holiday observances. Although I have my own anxiety around these issues, I have found that my kids are resilient and insightful in ways I never expected. I encourage you to listen to your son carefully, hear his concerns, and then try to respond as best as you are able. And also have some compassion on yourself that not every decision you make will be the right one, and that is OK too. Whether we like it or not, the holidays role around every year and next year you can reshape your son’s experience with lessons learned from this year.
Theologically this presents several issues, including:
1. What is the status of Christianity in Jewish Law?
2. In today's world what is the status of Christmas? Is it a religious holiday or a secular holiday?
A quick review of Tractate "Avodah Zarah" aka Akum etc. Reveals that a primary concern is to bend over backwards so as to NOT observe Pagan Holidays. A lot of ink is spilled on this which leads me to the next topic, because I plan to skirt the first 2. --smile--
3. What about assimilation? Have more Jews been lost here in North America to assimilation than in Europe did to persecution?
Clearly, Hanukkah was THE paradigm protesting the enforced similation of Jews towards the popular culture or its time, namely Hellenism. It would be ironic if Hanukkah were to be "undone" by enforced assimilation here in the USA!
I'm not sure of the First Amendment issues but free practice would mean that those who choose to Observe Christmas have every right to do so, and those who refuse to Observe Christmas equally have that right, too.
Bottom Line as I see it any concession on this matter is a concession in favor of assimilation and at the expense of minority rights.
Try to get excused from this and instead offer to do volunteer work on Christmas, EG at Hospitals.
Thank you for your question. It is one I relate to well. In my elementary school classes in Pensacola, Florida, I was often the only Jew. It seemed like every year my class was involved in making Christmas tree ornaments or decorating eggs for the school-wide Easter egg hunt. This was all in public school.
My parents made clear to the school that I would be permitted to be involved in parallel activities whenever the class was involved in a religious themed tradition. In fact, each year I would present a different aspect of my tradition to my non-Jewish classmates. One year my parents arranged for me to teach how to play dreidel to the rest of the class. Another year we brought latkes to share with the class.
Instead of having to choose between participating in activities with Christian overtones or being completely left out, see these moments as opportunities to challenge your child with sharing Judaism broadly.
Even 20 years ago in a small Southern town, non-Jews are open, accepting, and curious about Judaism. We have the opportunity to share the beauty of our tradition widely. Those formative experiences of sharing my Judaism, which made me special and unique, led directly to my identity as a passionate Jewish leader.
May your family continue to be blessed with a strong, passionate Jewish identity that can rise to the challenges of living in a largely non-Jewish world.
Not knowing what sort of school your child attends, I will set aside the question of appropriateness of the activity (although in any case I’m always a big fan of asking teachers what their educational goals are whenever I learn of a school project that strikes me as questionable in any way).
As a Reform rabbi and a parent, I generally feel comfortable with allowing Jewish children to participate in “Christmas-y” activities with just a few parameters. First, is the activity is presented in the spirit of “helping our friends celebrate their holiday,” or learning about a holiday that is, after all, part of the dominant religious tradition and culture in North America? Our children understand that we help our friends celebrate their birthdays even though it is not our birthday; they can understand this. We live in a pluralistic society that values diversity. Such learning and sharing can help teach our children to value differences and appreciate what is special about our own traditions. It may even give our children opportunities to teach their non-Jewish friends about some of our holidays and religious traditions.
Will we subsequently hear questions about why can’t we celebrate Christmas too? We very well might, and this presents a wonderful opportunity for teaching some of the basics of Jewish and Christian theology.
Second, how does your child feel about participating in these activities? If your child does not feel completely comfortable, try to find out why, and what sort of remedy would best suit him. It may be a simple matter of asking the teacher if he may make winter-themed decorations, or Hanukkah symbols and decorations (depending on how you feel about opening up the comparing-Christmas-with-Hanukkah can of worms), or some completely alternate art project that he can work on while remaining with his class. If your child prefers to wait out ornament-making sessions in the school library, perhaps that can be arranged.
If you determine that your child is, in fact, being “forced to do Christian religious things,” not in a spirit of sharing or learning but in a spirit of indoctrination, then I think you must immediately arrange a conversation with the teacher. It can be a very fine line. I know of Christian schools where Jewish students attend chapel services without discomfort, because it is understood by all that the “congregation” of students is diverse, and even if particularly Christian ideas or prayers are being offered, everyone accepts the reality of other valid religious ideas. It can also happen that making tree ornaments (which many Christians consider a non-religious activity) becomes an exercise in spreading Christian gospel. If your child attends a school that considers it part of its mission to raise Christian believers, then it’s probably time to find a different school.
Otherwise, I would begin with the assumption that no one intends your child harm or a change of faith. Listen carefully to your child. Consider what your concerns and goals are. Then, speak with the teacher, and perhaps the principal. Depending on where you live, they may have never thought about the potential religious implications of Christmas tree decorating before. They may thank you for broadening their perspective. Share your concerns honestly and in a manner that presumes a sympathetic audience, and chances are good they will be received in kind.
I will leave you with two book recommendations for dealing with the challenges of raising Jewish children in a majority Christian environment. I can’t say enough good things about The Only One Club by Jane Naliboff, illustrated by Jeff Hopkins, a lovely story about a little girl who is the only Jewish child in her class. Not only does the book depict a scene quite similar to the one you describe, and not only does it show the child dealing with the situation in an independent and positive manner, but it also treats being the “only one” of anything as both very special and very ordinary—after all, everyone’s the “only one” of something! Perfect for home and school.
And for a hilarious, highly informative, and delightfully ironic look at the differences between and the pitfalls of comparing Hanukkah with Christmas, try Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story, illustrated by Lisa Brown. Children love it, adults love it, and it actually teaches the attentive listener what Hanukkah is all about—and how “Christmas and Hanukkah are completely different things.” I’ve read it to the first grade at my daughter’s school for the last two years, and this year the religious school students at my congregation acted it out at our Hanukkah party—to the delight of the interfaith gathering of members, families, and friends in attendance.
Good luck, and blessings. The challenge of raising Jewish children in a non-Jewish world does not end on December 26th—and is sometimes best considered outside the pressure-pot of the December holiday season.
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