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A Scaled-Down Chanukah

December 18, 2008 By:
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Amy Blum and Rob Greenbaum aren't planning to spend less this year for Jaden and Jemma.
Over the past few years, Marsha Weinraub and Stuart Schmidt's holiday trip to New York City has become a family tradition. Around Chanukah time, the Philadelphia couple has enjoyed a few nights in the Big Apple with their two sons, now 16 and 21. That means a hotel room for three or four nights, Broadway shows, meals out and souvenirs.

But this year, with seemingly no end in sight to the flurry of bad news on practically every facet of the economy -- which is now officially in a recession -- the family just couldn't justify the expense. Instead, they'll be partaking of a low key Festival of Lights at their home in the Art Museum area.

Weinraub, a member of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, who also teaches psychology at Temple University, said that she loves being in New York during Chanukah, but is trying to look at things on the bright side.

"I'm excited about just relaxing at home and doing some baking, watching some videos and catching up on some reading," she said. "It's been an exhausting year. I think we all could use a little at-home downtime to rest. The economic stress has taken more than just money from us. It has taken psychic energy."

From holiday travel to retail sales, forecasters are expecting a scaled-down holiday season, one that might reverse the trend of the ever-growing commercial aspect of Chanukah. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey conducted earlier this month found that 67 percent of respondents planned to spend less on holiday gifts. In addition, 40 percent said the recession is adding stress to the holidays.

"I think we will all be tightening our belts a bit. That may mean more meaningful and smaller gifts -- but the Maccabees didn't spend too much on Chanukah presents either," noted Stanley Kligman, professor of marketing at Drexel University.

Kligman, a 70-year-old, who is hosting a Chanukah gathering for his grandchildren, echoed the sentiment that the economic downturn could cause many families to focus on the more important aspects of the holiday.

A Period of Frustration
But therapist Steven Cohen warned that, for some, the intersections of the holiday season with so much fiscal uncertainty will undoubtedly prove frustrating.

"When it comes down to Chanukah, people that used to be very extravagant may not be this year," reasoned Cohen, a Southampton psychologist who has treated patients for holiday depression. "The people that want to buy gifts and can't -- that is going to be weighting on them. But we need to appreciate the fact that we are with family and take a kind of inventory of the positive things in our lives."

Amy Blum and Rob Greenbaum -- the parents of a 5-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl -- are hoping to do just that, and have decided with their extended families to make a slight adjustment.

The couple usually participates, along with family members, in a gift grab bag along with 30 or more adults. This year, however, members decided to keep the items to a $25 value.

Still, they aren't planning to reduce the amount they spend on their kid's gifts.

"It just made sense. We really only do it for the fun of it anyhow," said Blum, a Cheltenham resident and member of Congregation Adath Jeshurun. "It's not about giving or receiving an elaborate gift, it's about enjoying each other's company."

Fellow congregants Jill and Michael Magerman -- the parents of two sons, ages 19 and 16 -- said that they still hadn't fully planned the family's Chanukah celebration, but that the focus would be less on gifts than in the past, partly because the kids are older and partly due to economics.

A Different Kind of Surprise
Not so long ago, the Magermans had used Chanukah to surprise their sons with the announcement of something major: the purchase of a second home at the shore or an upcoming trip to the Caribbean.

Not so this year.

Jill Magerman, who is training to become a life coach and whose husband works as an investment analyst, stressed that the holiday is really not about material things. Perhaps more than ever this year, she's looking forward to the ritual of lighting candles and getting together with loads of family at her brother's home.

Beth Joseph, a mother of three children ranging in age from 5 to 10, acknowledged that she and her husband, both attorneys, are uncertain about what the next six months will bring financially and are cutting back a bit on Chanukah gifts.

Joseph, a member of Temple Sinai, a Conservative synagogue in Dresher, added that in the past, each child would receive multiple gifts that topped $30. This year, they'll only be getting one toy that costs that much, and possibly some smaller things as well.

"We figured that since our kids have a lot anyway, there is no reason to be extravagant this particular year," said Joseph, 39. "Everybody is doing a little bit less than they normally do. I have friends that are very extravagant -- and even they are making choices."

Synagogues do not appear to be scaling back on their Chanukah programming -- bazaars and concerts are going forward as planned -- even if they are dealing with the financial crisis in myriad ways.

For example, Rabbi Elliot Strom of Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation noted that he's put together a discretionary fund to assist some members -- not with purchasing holiday gifts, but to buy basic necessities.

An Opportunity to Connect
Rabbi Joshua Waxman of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington, said that a number of parents have approached him wondering what to do about Chanukah.

"How can we use this as an opportunity to connect with what Chanukah is really all about, because it sure ain't about presents?" Waxman asked his congregants. He stressed the need to pitch in and help the less fortunate. Since Christmas happens to fall during Chanukah this year, he suggested that congregants volunteer at a soup kitchen on that day.

"In giving to others, we are sustained," he said.

Or Hadash member Michelle Smithman said that her family is going to start planning a spring clothing drive over Chanukah.

The mother of a 17-year-old-daughter and 15-year-old son said that in her own household, she'd like to do away with giving a gift on each night, but will keep up tradition largely because her son is developmentally disabled, and change can prove difficult.

"We're not going to do it differently in our house, but I think we are going to do more in the way of helping others right now," said Smithman. "We're taking a hit as everyone else is, but there are people who need help even more."

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