When Leslie and Michael Molder decided to take their two children on a trip to Israel, they purposely chose to do it during the month of December.
"Since Christmas [in America] starts after Halloween, a few months of Christmas is a lot for our kids," said Leslie Molder, who will be one of some 90 people on a 12-day tour organized by Kehillat Lower Merion. "Going to Israel and being in such a different atmosphere will provide a different way of looking at things."
With the first night of Chanukah this year falling on Dec. 25 – Christmas Day – the Molders are not alone in seeking to trade-in the Christmas tinsel, trees and tunes that seem to permeate America for menorahs, Maccabees and "Maoz Tsur" in Israel.
Though projected numbers for December tourism have not yet been released, over the first 10 months of this year, nearly 1.6 million arrived in Israel, according to the Israel Ministry of Tourism – more than all of 2004 and 27 percent more than the same period last year. Last December, 53,000 U.S. tourists entered Israel; assuming trends remain the same, more can be expected this holiday season.
While many on the various trips chose simply to travel to Israel, and not travel there specifically to celebrate Chanukah, some did admit that it will be nice to celebrate where the original miracle took place and be surrounded by so many others observing the eight-night holiday.
"We've done so many things over the years on Christmas Day to try and make a connection," said Rhonda Karp of Bala Cynwyd, who will be traveling on the same trip as the Molders. "We've gone to the Jewish museum in Philly and you look around there and you realize probably everyone around you is Jewish. That's a special feeling, and I know it will be like that in Israel."
According to Andrea Hershman, director of YAHAD, a collaborative of synagogues and other Jewish agencies in Bucks and Montgomery counties that will be taking about 170 people to Israel in December, the participants on that trip will have the opportunity to visit with families from Netivot and Sedot Negev, cities with a strong link financially and emotionally to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. There, they will have a chance to light candles with the Israelis, see their rituals and join a town Chanukah party, complete with a band, dancing and traditional foods.
"I'm not really sure what practices Israeli children have, aside from getting jelly doughnuts," said first-time visitor Lynn Horn, who will be traveling with her husband and two daughters on the YAHAD trip. "But I do know that we won't see all the Christmas lights that we see here. We'll be the majority."
In addition to all of the menorahs that the visitors will see displayed in storefronts and in other public places around the Jewish state, participants on the two trips will, of course, have some of their own candles to light. Each family will be provided with a chanukiah and each night, there will be a ceremony in the hotel lobbies where everyone will be able to light the menorahs together.
But for some, the joy and spirit of celebrating the holiday in the land where the first miracle of lights actually occurred 2,144 years ago doesn't overshadow a certain longing for celebrating it here in America, as most of the soon-to-be tourists have done in the past.
"My daughter has a wonderful menorah collection, and each year at her Chanukah party everyone has their own to light," said Sheila Bell of Havertown, who is traveling with the Kehillat of Lower Merion group. "In some ways, it's exciting to go to Israel, but I'm going to miss her party and being with my daughter and granddaughter."
And though Bell is not alone in her sentiments of missing family Chanukahs or neighborhood block parties, most will be glad to be thousands of miles away and free of last-minute shopping madness and clogged holiday traffic.
"This year on Christmas, we'll be climbing Masada," said Molder. "That'll be a big change from going to the movies and eating Chinese food!"