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Has the ‘December Dilemma’ Become an Anachronism?
In 1958, the United Synagogue published a pamphlet by Rabbi Abraham J. Karp, who was the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Rochester, N.Y., when I was growing up and who was a formative influence in my life.
It was titled Our December Dilemma: that is, how Jews would deal with Christmas. “Christmas is all about us,” he wrote, “and one way or another, all of us are involved in it. Gaily decorated streets proclaim it. Stores trumpet it. Magazines and newspapers write about it. Radio and TV carry it into our homes, and our children often are caught up in its celebration at school.”
The dilemma was finding a way to acknowledge the all-pervasive Christmas presence, without our children feeling deprived because Jews do not celebrate the holiday.
In some ways, the dilemma seems anachronistic. The world has changed considerably since the ’50s. The premise of the “dilemma” was that there was a wall of separation between Jews and the world they lived in.
That is not the case today. Jewish families are much more complex than they were. Our communities include many couples of dual faiths, where love binds the couple together, not religion. In their homes, there has to be mutual respect for the values and religious commitments of both parents. There are few of us who do not have relatives we love who are married to non-Jewish spouses. We embrace them, visit them, even celebrate with them on Christmas.
Some in our community are Jews by Choice. Although they are committed Jews, they still love other members of their family who are of other religions and for whom Christmas is a cherished holiday.
Today, there is no wall separating the Jewish community from Christmas. Nor is it possible to erect one. What was once “other” is now part of the family.
At the same time, I believe that we as Jews are less threatened by the allure of Christmas than families a generation ago. Our pride in being Jewish is strong. We know that we can be faithful Jews and still appreciate the beauty of the Christmas atmosphere, and respect the cherished beliefs of members of our own family who are Christian.
While intermarriage creates potential impediments to perpetuating the Jewish people, we know that people do not seek out non-Jewish spouses because of the beauty of Christmas. It is love and the desire to share their lives together that binds them. If there remains a “dilemma,” the root is love, not Christmas.
As we enter the holiday season, we need to be able to embrace all the people we love, and respect all their traditions. We may feel uncomfortable being in the presence of certain observances, but we ought to remember that our non-Jewish relatives come to our seders, light Chanukah candles, attend our B’nai Mitzvah and brit milahs and simchat bats, dine with us on our holidays, and accept us for who we are. We can do no less.
My congregation is committed to inclusion. Our mission statement says that we are “an inclusive, egalitarian Conservative synagogue. All are welcome irrespective of gender, race, or sexual orientation. We welcome dual faith families who want to be involved in the Jewish community.”
We need to live that acceptance as a community. We need to treat the values of others with dignity and recognize that where there is mutual respect there is no “dilemma.” Rather, there is a sense of shared humanity, and the feeling of being privileged to live in a land that empowers us all with freedom.
At this season, we should offer each other blessings appropriate to our commitments and beliefs, and family love that transcends that which might divide us.
Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom is the religious leader of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park.