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A Merry Little Chanukah?

December 17, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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The Kesack children -- Mark, 6; Alyssa, 13; and Julia, 8 -- spin dreidels by the family Christmas tree. Photo by Jordan Cassway

The Kesack home in Maple Glen is adorned with a 5-foot-high menorah, dreidels and various other Chanukah paraphernalia. Some of it even hangs along with snowmen and lights on the Christmas tree in the middle of the family's living room.

"We do Chanukah, and we do the commercial aspects of Christmas," said Andrea Kesack, who is raising her three young children as Jews. "The way it's presented in this house is that Santa comes because it's Daddy's religion."

At the Linehan household in Chalfont, Tim and Doreen also raised their two grown children as Jews, and they, too, celebrate both holidays. To make it comfortable for guests of either faith, some rooms in the home have Chanukah decorations, while others have a Christmas theme, including a tree.

Last Saturday, the couple attended morning services at their synagogue, Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell. Later, after the Chanukah lights had burned out, Tim, a practicing Catholic, headed off to St. Jude's Church for evening mass, as he does every week.

With intermarriage now an established part of American Jewish life, the confluence of the two winter holidays continues to serve as a challenge for the families involved, even among those who are choosing to raise their children as Jews.

Some of these families make a concerted effort to keep Christmas out of the house -- choosing to ignore it altogether or else celebrating with non-Jewish family members on separate turf. Other embrace the holiday, mostly emphasizing the nonreligious aspects, but believing that they can continue to do both without giving up their Judaism.

While many in the Jewish community might have historically said that you can't be Jewish and celebrate Christmas, "I don't think you can say that anymore," said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com, whose annual "December Holidays Survey" this year focused on families who do both.

One of the major conclusions of the survey was that, despite the increasing blending of the holidays, it's possible to do so without compromising a child's Jewish identity.

Of 179 respondents who say that they are raising their children exclusively as Jews, 48 percent celebrate Christmas in their own homes, up 3 percent from last year and 7 percent from the year before. Some 81 percent of those respondents noted that they didn't think mixing the holidays affected their kids' Jewish identities.

"I think the red line in the sand is, you can't believe in Jesus and be Jewish," said Case. But "you can't say you can't celebrate Christmas and be Jewish, because there's an awful lot of people doing that."

Values and Traditions
But not everyone agrees. Even as Jewish communities across the country -- and the denominations themselves -- are increasingly welcoming interfaith families, with the hope that the children will be raised Jewish, there's much debate about just how Jewish successive generations will be, and what families need to do to influence the future Jewish commitment of children and grandchildren.

"Where Jewish identity is so tenuous" to begin with, "the Christmas tree is a symbol of what the family's values are," said Steven Bayme, national director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee. "It's suggestive of the very thin nature of the Jewish identity of the home."

Bayme, who spoke last week at a panel on intermarriage sponsored by the local chapter of the AJC, cited national statistics that show that three out of four children of intermarried parents choose non-Jews as their own partners.

Suggesting that such a pattern poses a major threat to the Jewish community, he said that if the preferred goal of conversion of the non-Jewish spouse does not happen, then synagogues and communal institutions must perform outreach to encourage that those children are raised exclusively as Jews.

Bayme said that it's difficult to break down existing statistics to show how celebrating both holidays impacts children who are being raised as Jews. But he did cite a 2003 UCLA study showing that while 92 percent of children raised by two Jewish parents identify as Jews as adults, fewer than 40 percent identify that way when raised by intermarried parents.

Rabbi Elliot Holin of the Reform Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park agrees that there needs to be clarity when it comes to raising children.

"As children grow up, clarity is important, and I think they're better served if the couple's position is, 'We're going to raise the child in a faith' and the faith is Judaism," said the rabbi, who also participated in the AJC program last week.

He acknowledged, however, that in giving advice to his congregants -- about 20 percent of whom are interfaith families -- there is no guarantee they will listen.

Once family members make a decision for their home, the best thing he can do is welcome them into the synagogue and try to engage them Jewishly, even if they're mixing Christmas and Chanukah.

"Do I recommend it? No. But I need to accept it," he said.

Recognition and Respect
Andrea Kesack is an example of someone who grew up in an interfaith family, was raised Jewish and chose a non-Jewish spouse herself. But rather than blend the two faiths, she said that she and her husband, a Lutheran, decided to raise their three children Jewishly.

Nevertheless, while throughout the year the kids, ages 6 to 13, attend religious school at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, December is the time they expose them to both traditions.

She said that in their pre-marital discussions on the subject, her husband was "not glued to being a Christian."

While he agreed to be married in a synagogue, he didn't want to convert.

Based on her own upbringing, Kesack said that she believes a marriage could be successful with two religions intact, as long as the children were raised under the umbrella of one of them.

"I don't want to pass a condemnation on everybody out there doing a blend," said Kesack. "Everybody has to muddle their own way through it."

Although her husband is an irregular church-goer and "something of an agnostic," Kesack said that none of their children has expressed interest in attending church -- something she's fine with, since they're still young and establishing their Jewish identities. Her oldest daughter, Alyssa, recently became a Bat Mitzvah.

Michole Linehan, 34, whose father is Catholic, said that she never felt confusion blending the holidays because her family's focus was on Judaism.

"It seemed very normal to me," said Linehan, who was briefly married to a non-Jew. "I always felt like I had both perspectives, and a better understanding of each holiday and how both religions are intertwined."

It helped, she said, that her father was always welcomed at their Conservative shul, even though he wasn't allowed to participate in certain Jewish rituals, like being on the bimah at her Bat Mitzvah.

While she never had second thoughts over the religious mix in the home, her father said he did.

"I feel guilty that I didn't give them Catholicism," said Tim Linehan. "I think there's a lot of guilt on the Christian side, particularly on the Catholic side, and I rationalized that I didn't want them to have to go through all that guilt ... . And with that rationalization, I was okay with it."

He said that he was comforted by Pope John Paul II's comments about the Jews having the original covenant with God.

"If the pope is saying that, that the Jews are right with God, then there's hope for salvation for my kids and my wife," he said.

The Linehans said that while neither of their parents gave them grief about their marriage or their children's religious upbringing, they've "had everything imaginable" from others -- both Jewish and Catholic.

"We have friends that will not come over to our house if the Christmas tree is up, even to this day," he said.

Traditions of Their Own
While the Kesacks and the Linehans represent one way of approaching the December dilemma, other interfaith couples have taken a more unequivocal stand on Christmas.

For Gari Weilbacher, who runs InterFaithways, a local outreach group for intermarried families, Christmas meant coming up with family traditions of their own.

Weilbacher's husband, Mike, was raised Christian, though converted seven years ago. From the start, their two daughters -- who are now teenagers -- have been raised as Jews and spent part of their education at Jewish day schools.

When the family visits non-Jewish relatives on Long Island in New York, at Christmas time, the Weilbachers spend Christmas Eve at a nearby hotel, rather than at the home of Mike's brother, in order to avoid the tradition of early morning presents from Santa Claus.

They tend to stay up late and swim in the pool. The next morning, they have brunch at the hotel with one of his sisters, and later in the day, visit another sibling's home in Hampton Bays for Christmas dinner.

"What we did was make it a very real holiday that we share with our Catholic relatives and Catholic grandparents," said Weilbacher.

The girls are now in high school; their mother recalled that when they were smaller, after they had gone to bed, she and her husband would stay up wrapping Chanukah gifts, while drinking egg nog and listening to Christmas music.

Weilbacher said that it was her nod to his traditions, although they warmed to it so much that it's something they still do.

The girls are "100 percent Jewish ... but we celebrate with our Catholic relatives, knowing that it's their holiday and their traditions." 

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