Hanukkah or Christmas? Some local families celebrate both holidays

To be sure, southwestern Pennsylvanians love their traditions, and none more so than those surrounding the Christmas season, complete with Santa Claus, carols, and of course, presents.

But what about interfaith families, in which each spouse embraces a different religion?

This "December dilemma," as Christian and Jewish religious leaders call it, comes down to individual choice and tolerance for other viewpoints.

Whether you trim a pine tree or spin a dreidel in December, mutual respect and compromise are the keys to a happy interfaith marriage and well-adjusted children, said two local rabbis who recently sponsored a program for interfaith couples and families.

"Our intermarriage rate is about 50 percent, so it's a reality," said Rabbi Alex Greenbaum of the Beth El Congregation of the South Hills in Scott. "The majority of new members in our synagogue are interfaith."

Rabbi Alex and his wife, Rabbi Amy Greenbaum, held a "Pre-Christmas/Chanukah Conversation" last week at the Jewish Community Center in Scott, aimed at families who are trying to avoid conflict in interfaith marriages.

The Greenbaums, both 43, were the first rabbinic couple in the 100-year history of the Jewish Theological Seminary to be ordained at the same time.

Rabbi Alex serves as the rabbi of the Beth El Congregation, while his wife is the rabbi at the Beth Israel Center in Pleasant Hills and the education director at Beth El.

Together, they have sponsored several of these conversations in recent years, including Easter and Passover programs in the spring.

"We're trying to promote tolerance," Rabbi Amy said.

"We're rabbis and we want to learn from others," her husband said.

The couple enlisted the help of one of their congregants, Marvin Lalli, 72, of Squirrel Hill, for the discussion.

"I grew up in an interfaith family in Canonsburg," Mr. Lalli said, of his Catholic father and Jewish mother.

Mr. Lalli said though he was raised Jewish, his family celebrated some Christian traditions, such as a family dinner on Christmas Day.

"My dad always saw to it that we were in the right place at the right time, whether it was synagogue or a youth group," he remembered.

"It's something special when a non-Jewish person is raising Jewish kids," Rabbi Alex said.

"I think it's admirable to raise kids that aren't your religion," Rabbi Amy agreed.

Nick and Randi Rumbaugh of South Side came to the discussion hoping to learn more about raising interfaith children.

Married for three years, the couple are expecting their first child in April. They hope to raise their children with the same respect they showed each other on their wedding day when they blended his Catholic and her Jewish traditions.

Menorahs and trees

In December, they will decorate their home with menorahs and a Christmas tree. To help his wife embrace and understand his traditions, Mr. Rumbaugh, 33, has given her Jewish-themed tree ornaments, such as Noah's ark and a dreidel. This year, Mrs. Rumbaugh said she would like to place a Star of David atop the tree.

The couple have found a system that works for them, but it wasn't always such smooth sailing. Though Judaism and Catholism are very different religions, they are also alike in many aspects, including a heavy reliance on symbolism and rituals.

"It took us a long time to work out compromises," said Mrs. Rumbaugh, 30. "Our kids will be raised Jewish, but they will at least know what Nick's traditions are."

Though they do not have a Christmas tree in their Upper St. Clair home, Mollie Neuman, who is Jewish, and her husband Paul Impellicceiri -- "a nice Roman Catholic boy" his wife calls him --have managed to respect each other's beliefs and traditions since they were married 21 years ago.

The couple, both 48, raised their two boys, ages 15 and 18, in the Jewish religion.

"It was definitely a gift from my husband," Ms. Neuman said about her husband's willingness to forego a Christian upbringing for their children.

The couple celebrate Christmas with Mr. Impellicceiri's family and other social aspects of the holiday, but when it comes to religion, the boys identifying strongly as Jews, Ms. Neuman said.

She said being open and honest with each other, and not undermining the other parent, also helped her children respect their father's religion without feeling confused.

"Like any good marriage, it's important to keep the lines of communication open and be willing to compromise at times," said Ms. Neuman, an occupational therapist. "It's so much easier when the parents make decisions, one way or the other."

Mrs. Rumbaugh hosts a Christmas brunch and goes to Mass on Christmas Eve with her husband most years, but this year the couple plan to take a cruise to the Carribbean during the holidays.

Mr. Rumbaugh, in turn, has studied Judaism and attends the High Holy days -- Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah -- with his wife. Although Hanukkah usually falls around the same time as Christmas -- this year it is Dec. 8 - 16 -- it is considered a minor Jewish holiday.

The couple plan to continue embracing the Christmas culture after their baby arrives, including visits from Santa and presents under the tree, while also observing the Jewish religion.

It's about family

"It's about being with family and having a meal together," Mrs. Rumbaugh said. "For Nick, it wasn't about the religious aspect of Christmas."

Mr. Lalli cautioned the Rumbaughs about sending confusing messages to children, and said when his oldest son was five years old, he couldn't understand why an aunt had given him a Christmas stocking.

"It drove the poor kid nuts," Mr. Lalli recalled. "There was confusion because we never had it."

Mixed messages can at times be confusing to Jewish and non-Christian children who are surrounded by Christmas and all of the hoopla it entails, the Greenbaums said, including everything from holiday music and movies, to food, festivities and traditions.

"It's hard because the mainstream default is Christmas," Rabbi Amy said. "I feel it's important for Jews to learn about and celebrate all of our special and memory-making holidays."

The Greenbaums, who have four children ages 6-15, said being open with children is usually the best policy. The couple take their children to see Christmas lights and help friends decorate Christmas trees, while also having non-Jewish friends over to share a Sabbath dinner at their home.

Family traditions can be among the most sacred during the holidays, so having a firm support system in place can help avoid conflict, Rabbi Alex said.

"Unfortunately for interfaith couples, there's not a good institutional support system," Rabbi Alex said.

The Rumbaugh's parents have understood their concerns and challenges, they said.

"Our parents so far have been very respectful," Mrs. Rumbaugh said.

The couple operate a small business called Summit Recycling of Penn Hills, and friends also have stepped in to help during scheduling conflicts.

Still, sorting out essential traditions and those they are willing to sacrifice hasn't been easy, Mrs. Rumbaugh said.

"I get a little frustrated," she said. "It's not like we have a strict contract --we don't. I just think for Nick and I, it's really opened our eyes. It makes us more tolerant of our own differences and other people's differences."

"In Hebrew they call it 'B'tzelem Elohim' --we're all created in God's image," Ms. Neuman said. "No matter what religion you are, we're all God's children."

E-resources are available: Websites, such as www.interfaithfamily.com, offer tips, advice for raising interfaith children. Also: Is it Hanukkah or Chanukah? Visit www.holidays.net/chanukah/spelling.htm for an explanation of why the holiday is spelled so many different ways.

mobilehome - neigh_west - holidays - neigh_north - neigh_east - neigh_south

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867. First Published November 21, 2012 5:00 AM


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