Christmas? Hanukkah? Both?
Congregations plan workshops for two-faith families

Wednesday, December 2, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

With a menorah wall-hanging adorning the room, Josh Goodman, 5, and his mother, Gale, decorate their Christmas tree.
(Craig Ruttle photo)

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Ah, the holiday season: Christmas trees peeking from living-room windows, Hanukkah menorahs adorning family-room tables, and the annual December problem confronting interfaith families.

When one part of the family is Jewish and another is Christian, the month of glad tidings and cheer is also a month of complex and potentially explosive issues.

Should Christian grandparents give their Jewish grandchildren Christmas presents? Can a menorah and an Advent wreath sit side by side without confusing everyone in the house? And when in a family's life should such decisions be made or revised?

Two Cincinnati-area Jewish congregations are holding workshops this week to help interfaith families cope with the annual problem. Congregation B'nai Tikvah, a new reconstructionist group in West Chester, will address the issue in an open forum Thursday night. Isaac M. Wise Temple in Amberley Village holds a Hanukkah workshop for interfaith couples Sunday at noon.

"It's a big issue for people in congregations today. It becomes something they have to grapple with," said Rabbi Bruce Adler of B'nai Tikvah. "The pull, the challenge, the

expectations from family -- we have many people in that situation who just want to talk."

Jewish-Christian families are especially affected in December. Hanukkah is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, but has assumed a higher public profile because of its proximity to Christmas.

Also, the rate of Jewish intermarriage has skyrocketed in recent years, with some studies suggesting that more than half of all Jews will marry non-Jews, primarily Christians. Most interfaith families, then, feel pressured to pick and choose -- or accommodate and balance -- especially when it comes to children and extended family.

Congregation B'nai Tikvah of West Chester will hold a forum on the December holiday conflict at 7:30 p.m.

Thursday at a member family's home. For directions and to RSVP, call Marla Cohen at 755-7567. Isaac M. Wise Temple, 8329 Ridge Road in Amberley Village, holds a Hanukkah workshop for outreach couples Sunday at noon. For more information, call 793-2556.

There is no charge for either.

The Fairfield home of Devin and Gale Goodman reveals their solution to the December problem: celebrate both holidays all-out. The Goodmans decorate for the holidays every year on the weekend after Thanksgiving. The Christmas tree is joined by a Hanukkah wreath, two menorahs and a nativity scene, Christmas lights outside and Hanukkah wall hangings indoors.

"I love this time of year, I really do," said Mrs. Goodman, who is Christian and whose husband is Jewish. "We decided (early in their relationship) that we would try to stay as true to our own tradition as we could and bring the other partner to it."

They celebrate Christmas with her family and Hanukkah with his family, and they include their two children in celebrations of each. Josh, who is 5, hears bedtime stories from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and he is learning the meaning of both holidays.

Hanukkah, which commemorates a Jewish victory against religious assimilation, begins this year at sundown Dec. 13 and continues through sundown Dec. 21.

"Josh understands that Jesus was born at Christmastime. With Hanukkah, he understands there was a battle and the Jewish people survived and they had enough oil" for eight days, said Mrs. Goodman, whose family also includes a 16-month-old daughter.

But the mixing of religions concerns some Jewish leaders, who think parents should choose one religion for their children while maintaining respect for the other. Rabbi Julie Schwartz teaches human and pastoral care and counseling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the topic comes up in her classes.

"The old consensus was not to talk about it at all or raise them in both and let them sort it out. Most of what we teach about identity formation now is that there has to be a clear identity in the home," Rabbi Schwartz said.

Sherri and Keith Gordon of West Chester made that precise decision even before they were married. Their children, ages 7 and 9, are being raised Jewish. Mrs. Gordon takes them to Hebrew school while Mr. Gordon is at church.

There is no trace of Christmas in the Gordon home. The family does travel to the home of Mr. Gordon's family to celebrate Christmas Day, and the children receive Christmas presents from their grandparents. "It's just easier to explain that there's more than one religion and everybody has different ones and this is the one we were born into," said Mrs. Gordon, who is Jewish.

And while December may be particularly difficult for interfaith families, the problems they encounter don't vanish on Dec. 26. For that reason, congregations such as Wise Temple run outreach groups for families year-round.

"The issues are something that many people think they can afford to set aside until December, but they really are complex issues of family relations, of decisions made and unmade," said Rabbi Lewis Kamrass of Wise Temple. "They take into account both rational and irrational components of faith and family and idealized memories of the past."

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