Christmas can make non-Christian children feel like outsiders

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'Tis the season of confusion for children who don't celebrate Christmas, according to Rabbi David Katz, who talked about the holiday season during Friday night's Sabbath service at Temple Ohav Shalom in McCandless.

"Every year, Jews in America are challenged by issues that touch upon identity, boundaries, pride and protectiveness," he said, asking congregants' opinions on topics such as where to draw lines, what to ignore, what to take delight in, what to oppose and what to appreciate about a holiday that many of their friends, neighbors and countrymen observe and celebrate with gusto.

Schoolchildren especially are affected by a holiday season that they don't take part in.

Rabbi Katz said teachers should strive to create a December classroom environment that is sensitive to all students -- not just those who celebrate Christmas.

"What about Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist children?" he asked, noting that today's Judeo-Christian culture tends to ignore all other religions during the holiday season.

Rabbi Katz said that the central message of Christmas contradicts what Jewish children are taught to believe -- that Jesus was a Jewish teacher in his time, but he was not divine and was not the son of God.

"The teachings of Jesus are spoken of with respect, but they are not part of the synagogue's curriculum," he said. "Most often the subject of Jesus is brought up when the students discuss the main difference between Judaism and Christianity."

"Jewish children can enjoy the beauty of Christmas, but they know that they cannot fully participate in the holiday," Rabbi Katz said. "Christmas is meant for Christians to celebrate, because it commemorates the birth of Jesus; Jews have a full calendar of holidays, but that calendar does not include Christmas, because Jews do not believe that Jesus was the messiah."

Holiday concerts are often a hot-button topic for Jewish children and the token Jewish song is not often one they have ever heard, he said.

"The subject can be very emotional," said Rabbi Katz, adding that the fundamental question bears asking: "Why is Christmas put into the curriculum of a public school at all? Of what benefit is it educationally? There's a difference between education and celebration."

The congregation on Friday night discussed the issue.

Natalie Daninhirsch, 13, of McCandless is a student at Carson Middle School in the North Allegheny School District and a student at Temple Ohav Shalom's religious school. She celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah in August, which was attended by many of the non-Jewish students in her class.

"It's nice when people want to learn about Judaism, and we are asked a variety of questions, but at the same time, we're expected to know everything about Christianity," she said. "I feel like there's this expectation that I should know more than I do. I've even been called out for not knowing the lyrics to Christmas songs."

"Our concern as parents is that our children not be made to feel like outsiders in their own school," Rabbi Katz said. "Children who aren't Christian may appear to be responding to the Christmas holiday spirit, but they are fully aware that red and green are not their team colors."

Rabbi Katz's advice to educators is to imagine how a class divided among Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus might be taught.

"Create learning activities that would be appropriate and imagine other religious traditions which are not present in your class when you create your lesson plans," he said, adding that if teachers let parents of all students know their holiday plans in advance, then the parents can respond intelligently to these activities in the context of their own religion's teachings and their own family values.

Originally from Rochester, N.Y., Rabbi Katz is serving as interim rabbi at Temple Ohav Shalom while it is searching for a new spiritual leader to replace Rabbi Art Donsky, who left earlier this year.

Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer:

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