No Holiday Dilemma this December

December 23, 2020Rabbi Danny Burkeman

As a Jew who grew up in England and now lives in the United States, I have always enjoyed Christmas from a bit of a distance. I looked forward to the lights that adorn houses and streets in celebration of the holiday, not to mention watching Christmas specials on television and getting extra days off work to be with family. However, things changed last year when my family and I joined our friends to help them decorate their Christmas tree.  

It was a lovely experience; it felt like we were in a Christmas movie as we added the various baubles and ornaments to the tree. It was moving to hear about where various decorations were collected or purchased and the memories they evoked. I really enjoyed being included to share in the ritual moment of another family.  

I am also thrilled that I could do this as their rabbi.  

Perhaps this additional piece of information might shock some of you - but why? At Temple Shir Tikva, the community I am proud to serve and belong to, we have made a deliberate effort to engage with and make interfaith families feel at home and see their interfaith identities welcomed within our community. Our congregational life has been enriched by Jewish-adjacent members of other religious traditions who have chosen to raise their children in the Jewish community and who have committed to be a part of our synagogue.  

While my community expects children in interfaith families to be raised in the Jewish tradition, we do not require that the parent of another faith abandon their religious connections and traditions. I love the fact that I have congregational members who are committed Christians raising their children as Jews and are active participants in our community. Many of them have also helped us think more deeply about inclusion and have challenged some of the assumptions we make about members’ levels of knowledge and experience in our synagogue.  

Recently, I have seen an unfortunate number of posts on social media complaining about Jewish-interfaith families who decorate Christmas trees. In full disclosure, I might have posted something similar ten years ago. But today, I see things very differently.  

Interfaith families have always been a part of our Jewish communities; in recent years, we have begun to actively ensure that they feel at home in our synagogues. As part of the desire to fully include them, we have also come to appreciate that Jewish-adjacent family members should be able to celebrate and honor their personal religious traditions. 

Doing so does not dilute their family’s Judaism or their Jewish commitment; if anything, I believe it can deepen their connection and highlight that their family has actively chosen Judaism as the religion of the home. Their children are Jewish because their parents made a specific choice. There are many things that make me anxious about the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people, but I sleep easy at night when I think about interfaith families who have chosen to raise their children as Jews and alongside that decision, have a Christmas tree in their homes.  

As we decorated our friends’ Christmas tree that evening, we talked about the synagogue, about the recent congregational trip to Israel that we had shared, and about the next day’s plans for religious school. Together, we helped celebrate an important family tradition while rooted firmly in our Jewish past, present, and future. 

When all is said and done, the greatest gift that parents who are Jewish-adjacent give us is their children. They make a commitment, one that for some may be quite difficult, to raise their children in a different religious tradition. We should be celebrating that fact every day. And if the choice the family has made means that their children are raised as Jews in a home with a Christmas tree, then every single time I will choose to have their children in our synagogues and a Christmas tree in their homes. 

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