Amy Orlov remembers sitting in music class back in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., singing Christmas carols and humming the words to certain parts -- the ones that made her uncomfortable.
Emma Dall (left) and classmate Alexa Burrows display their homemade -- and edible -- Chanukah menorah, which they made in first grade
"But I don't think they do that anymore, and the decorations, they're more winter-ish," she says. Orlov, 45, notes that she was probably the only Jewish child in her elementary school, but that's not the case with her daughter, Olivia, a fourth-grader at Valley Forge Elementary School in Chester County.
There is a small, but growing number of Jewish kids there, commensurate with Chester County's growing Jewish population.
In addition to having more Jewish peers, Orlov says of her daughter, "she's much more aware of being Jewish this year than before, noticing who the other kids in school are." And she also seems to be aware of how others see her.
Just last week, Olivia recalls that she was looking something up in the "C" section of the dictionary with a non-Jewish classmate, and he happened to point out the word "Chanukah" to her. The 9-year-old says it was nice.
In contrast, a few years ago Olivia brought in a hand-painted dreidel from home and her teacher told her to put it away -- that "we don't show items of religious significance here," explains Orlov, who was bothered by the incident and discussed it with the principal. "Being religion-blind doesn't mean you're blind to religion, but that you celebrate all religions."
This is the time when the issue pops to the forefront, especially when Chanukah and Christmas overlap, as they do this year (Chanukah begins on Tuesday night, Dec. 20). The kids participate in winter concerts and class parties, where snowflake art and hot chocolate have replaced wreath-decorating and even candy canes.
Stephen Levine, outgoing vice president of the Upper Merion school board
To help explain what is and is not acceptable, for the past decade, the Anti-Defamation League has sent out a letter -- "The December Dilemma: December Holiday Guidelines for Public Schools" -- to more than 600 superintendents and municipalities in eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and parts of Delaware.
It also publishes "Religious Issues in Your Child's Public School: A Guide for Jewish Parents." (To get these, call 215-568-2223; www.adl.org/religious_freedom .)
The guidelines, which are based on federal court decisions, aim to provide an overview of how a public entity should handle symbols and teaching. They state: "When a school does choose to acknowledge the December holidays, it is essential that the school must never appear to endorse religion over non-religion or one particular religious faith over another." Also, "schools must be careful not to cross the line between teaching about religious holidays (which is permitted) and celebrating religious holidays (which is not). Celebrating religious holidays in the form of religious worship or other practices is unconstitutional."
"There were and still are symbols in the schools," attests ADL regional director Barry Morrison. "Of course, it's always a question of context -- as part of a lesson, fine; as part of a larger diorama, maybe. But for the most part, local schools understand what to do."
Morrison says he's unaware of any specific state laws or guidelines pertaining to the holidays. So to a large extent, the situation depends upon how individual institutions or districts handle the holidays.
Olivia Orlov Snyder (below) shows off her hand-painted dreidel, which she brought to school several years ago
Photo by Carin M. Smilk
In Valley Forge, 10 holidays are officially taught during the year -- Yom Kippur, Diwali, Thanksgiving, Ramadan, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year, Easter and Passover. They are explained through pre-selected books and ensuing classroom discussions.
"It's a literature-based holiday curriculum," says Todd Parker, 40, curriculum supervisor for the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District. "Parents have asked to do things" -- like contribute books, items, projects or ideas from home -- "but we tell them kindly not to. We teach these 10 major world holidays in a relatively controlled way.
"It's to maintain consistency," he says, against the backdrop of a "long and not always clear history about the way religion is taught in public schools nationwide."
There doesn't appear to be much tension over the issue locally, according to observers, partly because of the cosmopolitan nature of Philadelphia and its environs, and the fact that Jewish families have resided here for so long. And perhaps, as Morrison suggests, people don't want to make too big a deal over absolute equanimity when it comes to holiday symbols: He recalls what happened in 2006 at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, when a rabbi insisted that an 8-foot menorah be placed near existing Christmas trees. All the decorations wound up being removed, and the Jewish community took heat for it.
The menorah is generally viewed as the religious representation of Chanukah, and kept out of the classroom. The dreidel often works in its stead, at least in schools that don't have preset rules.
Even so, Nancy Baron-Baer, associate regional director of the ADL, adds that "every year, there will be a few calls from Montgomery, Bucks, Delaware and Chester counties. In the last two years, we got a call from a very religious Christian parent who felt there were too many dreidels and menorahs to a greater degree than the school was presenting Christmas."
On the flip side, parents like Jennifer Matzner in West Chester and Debbie Dall in Dresher have been asked by teachers to come talk about Chanukah.
Matzner, 40, plans to bring in latkes, doughnuts, dreidels and a menorah, and offer a brief description of the holiday to her daughter Dahlia's third-grade class in the West Chester School District. "The teacher is calling it a multicultural presentation," says Matzner.
At first, she says she wondered whether it was appropriate to do anything in the schools. She was so concerned that she started a Facebook conversation among friends and, in the end, was encouraged to do something.
"I wasn't too keen on it, but then there might not be anything for non-Jewish kids" about Chanukah. Plus, her 8-year-old has become excited about it.
Dall, 38, in the Upper Dublin School District in Montgomery County, says her daughter's elementary school adopts a "tradition share," where children relay what their families typically do during the holidays or other times of the year. In the past, she has led a Chanukah craft with her daughter, Emma, now 8.
"I think they should do something for the kids. It's nice to mention Chanukah and tell a story briefly," she says, though she doesn't think that holidays should be discussed in great detail, and it certainly shouldn't be school-mandated to learn about other religions.
Melissa Mitnick, 39, of Jamison, agrees. "I think it's better left in religious institutions," says the special-education teacher and mother of three in Bucks County.
There are also, of course, generational differences. The world's become a smaller place due to technology. There's an app for everything, including religious information. There are also more intermarried and blended families who celebrate all kinds of holidays. And there's also a new worldliness and diversity in the schools.
"Here in the Upper Merion schools, there's an incredibly diverse student population; some 50 languages are spoken," says Stephen Levine, 60, a psychologist and outgoing vice president of the school board there. "Religion is really left out of the middle and high schools; it comes into play more in elementary school."
"There's not any imbalance that I've seen," he says. "If there is any, it's in Christmas songs as part of musical presentations."
For someone who grew up in Detroit and went to a school that was "about 80 percent Jewish," Levine says "it's better to stay out of the whole business of bringing religion into an academic environment. We do a better job when we teach our children tolerance and curiosity."
Jennifer Matzner's husband, Gregg, 39, a teacher of gifted education at Candlebrook Elementary School in Upper Merion, says that according to his school's principal, holidays can be taught in an instructional but not celebratory mode, and the goal is to be inclusive.
Jewishly speaking, many parents note that their children receive their religious education at synagogue, as part of Sunday school and Hebrew school. That's where Alan Gorberg expects his two children to learn about their heritage -- at the same shul where he went, Temple Beth El Ner Tamid in Broomall.
His kids also attend school in the same district as he did -- Marple-Newtown in Delaware County. But the 44-year-old says that they have few Jewish friends, and that his daughter Remy, 10, has no other Jewish kids in her class at Worrall Elementary School, also in Broomall.
Gorberg thinks "it's important for the other kids to be educated" about Chanukah, "so they know what it's about." Learning something about other beliefs "teaches you tolerance," he adds. "It's the reason why there's so much ignorance in the world -- because people don't know about other religions."
As for Remy, she says that right before winter break, the kids take part in a big sing-along, where they practice Chanukah, Christmas and Kwanzaa tunes. She says she talks about Chanukah to her friends, about how she sometimes spends it with her grandparents and how she gets one present a night for eight days.
And she shares another tidbit, one that connects her universally to many girls her age: This season, she's hoping for a third pair of Uggs.