Jewish Journal

When Xmas Enters the Classroom

by Sharon Schatz Rosenthal

Posted on Dec. 16, 2004 at 7:00 pm


Five days a week during this holiday period, Jodi Braverman sits in a room that conjures up images of the North Pole. The walls are covered with pictures of jolly old St. Nick, and not one, but two miniature Christmas trees serve as obstacles to the seating area. From time to time, Yuletide carols serve as background music.

The holiday scene seems like something right out of a department store lineup to see Santa. However, for Braverman, it's called education. The room is in Ulysses S. Grant High School in Valley Glen and the class is -- well, Braverman pleaded the Fifth.

"I sit next to another Jewish kid in the class, and we make comments to each other," Braverman, 16, said with a note of annoyance in her voice.

While the high school junior is not outraged by the overt display, she does find it off-putting.

"The teacher says the trees aren't Christmas symbols, they're just something that's been adopted over the years," the student said. "We feel like it is a Christmas symbol. We don't see the need for it."

But rather than rocking the boat, Braverman plans to ride it out.

"I don't want to get on the teacher's bad side," the Sherman Oaks resident said. "It's just for the month, I guess."

At a time when some schools around the country are being challenged over their Christmas celebrations, the plight of Jewish students who attend public school during the holiday season has become more significant than ever.

Bill O'Reilly, host of "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News Channel and a national radio program, angered some Jewish lawmakers and organizational leaders on Dec. 3 when he suggested that a Jewish radio caller angry that Christmas is celebrated in public schools should "go to Israel." When the Anti-Defamation League demanded an appology, the host responded by calling its national director, Abraham Foxman, "a nut."

And while a high school in Maplewood, N.J., recently was forbidden to play Christmas songs at its holiday concert, and the words "Merry Christmas" were removed from a popular holiday tune in Chicago's public schools, the domination of Christmas over Chanukah, Kwanzaa or Ramadan is still rampant in the public school arena. While the country continues to redefine separation of church and state, Jewish students -- recognizing that Chanukah is a minor holiday in Judaism -- are finding ways to cope during December.

Perhaps the reason Braverman isn't too worked up about her daily dose of Dec. 25 is because, like many Jewish children in public schools across the Southland, she's got her Jewish bases covered. She is the secretary of the school's Jewish club, president of her Jewish youth group chapter and most of her friends are Jewish.

Like Braverman, Danielle Roth, a senior at LACES (Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies) feels that her school's tendency to favor Christmas over Chanukah and the other holidays is obvious. Roth said that any recognition of the winter holidays seems to emphasize Christmas the most -- even down to the holiday candygrams students can purchase.

"The school wants to recognize all of the holidays, but if the candygrams are decorated with a little bear or something, the bear is wearing a Santa hat," Roth explained. "The spirit of the whole thing is very Christmas-like."

Roth's salvation is the Jewish Student Union (called Young Jewish Scholars at LACES), a national, not-for-profit organization that facilitates weekly club meetings in public schools. Roth is the Jewish Student Union (JSU) regional president.

Club meetings take place weekly during the school lunch hour and include speakers from Jewish organizations and discussions on timely topics for Jews. The club also offers activities outside of school, celebrations and other events.

Headquartered in Los Angeles, JSU was founded two and a half years ago and is funded by the Gindi Family Fund and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Currently, JSU has chapters at 17 public high schools in the greater Los Angeles area (except LACES, which is a magnet). In addition, JSU has chapters in New Jersey, as well as several affiliated clubs elsewhere in the nation.

JSU was created after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that school districts must give student Bible clubs the same access to public schools for meetings that they give to other community groups.

Before JSU came to LACES during Roth's sophomore year, Judaism was an out-of-school experience for her.

"I got my Jewishness in Hebrew school, but I felt something was missing," Roth said. "I felt weird that I couldn't have that at school."

Because most public schools do not have a JSU chapter, some students rely on outside organizations for a dose of Judaism. Courtney Korb, 16, a Burbank High School junior, is president of her B'nai B'rith Girls (BBG) chapter, which is part of the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization.

"I can count all the Jews at my school on two hands," the Burbank resident said. "But my teachers are respectful of the fact that I'm Jewish and I celebrate Chanukah."

Korb does not hesitate to reveal that Christmas is everywhere at her school but seems resigned to that fact.

"I've become used to it," she said. "I kind of see that it's not going to change, but if I ever have a problem with it, I could always talk to a teacher or a Jewish friend at school or one of my AZA [Aleph Zadik Aleph] or BBG friends."

While older Jewish students find ways to combat the December dilemma, the fact that Christmas is king in school is not lost on the younger set. Taylor Gottbetter, a second-grader at Welby Way Elementary School in West Hills, spoke about making a menorah at school for a lesson on Chanukah. But in the same breath, he noted that his classroom calendar "is decorated with the most famous holiday in December -- Christmas."

Taylor is not alone in his realization and acceptance of the situation.

"At my school, we don't celebrate Chanukah, and there are no Chanukah decorations, only Christmas decorations," said Gal Dimond, a third-grader at Sherman Oaks Elementary School. "But it's OK for me. I don't care."

Jacob Hanna, 13, a seventh-grader at Portola Middle School in Tarzana, had an improved holiday experience after he moved from a school with a smaller Jewish population.

"At my other school, there were only like 10 kids who were Jewish, and the teachers might say, 'Oh, Chanukah's this week, now back to our lesson,'" said Hanna, who added that his former classmates often made fun of Judaism because they didn't know anything about it. "No one really cared [about Chanukah]. At my new school, they actually know about the holiday."

But it is the high school set that seemed most moved by the Christmas conundrum.

"If there was going to be a big Christmas tree at school this year, I'd make the Jewish Club put up a big menorah," said Matt Pinchak, a senior at Agoura High School.

While Pinchak described his school as respectful when it comes to the December holidays, he is not afraid to speak up for Chanukah and Judaism if necessary.

"If anyone's going to make a big deal [if Chanukah is not equally recognized at school], it's me, and the school knows it," said the 17-year-old, who wears a yarmulke to school each day.

As a member of the Madrigal Singers, a prestigious choir at Beverly Hills High School, Maya Lasry doesn't mind singing Christmas carols.

"It's pretty music," the junior said. "I don't have to necessarily believe in what I'm singing. I just do it because I love it."

In fact, singing Christmas songs has become a Jewish bonding experience for Lasry, because many of her fellow Madrigals are Jewish and speak Hebrew. Lasry and her friends often help the choir conductor pronounce the Hebrew words in the Chanukah songs.

To assist public schools in dealing with the December holidays without favoring one religion over another, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) provides public schools and government institutions in Southern California with materials and information on how to keep public recognition of the December holidays constitutionally permissible.

While society sorts out separation of church and state and what constitutes a religious celebration, there is no question that many local children still take pride in celebrating Chanukah.

"I like that Chanukah and the Jewish holidays aren't commercialized," Braverman said. "We still remember the religious factor and not the 'Hallmark' aspect. The story behind the holiday isn't lost of the years."

For more information about the Jewish Student Union, visit www.jsu.org. For more information about the Anti-Defamation League, visit www.adl.org.

ADL Offers Schools Holiday Guidelines

by Sharon Schatz Rosenthal, Contributing Writer

To assist public schools in dealing with the December holidays without favoring one religion over another, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) provides schools and government institutions in Southern California with materials and information on what is constitutionally permissible.

The materials highlight the difference between practicing and teaching religion, offer guidelines for holiday assemblies at which religious themes or music may be performed, advise on appropriate holiday symbols for decorations, suggest appropriate holiday activities and explain what is permissible to be displayed on public property.

An ADL guide for Jewish parents deals with similar issues.

"The goal is to facilitate joyful celebration of the season's holidays in a constitutionally appropriate manner," said Amanda Susskind, ADL Pacific Southwest regional director. "No child of any faith should feel excluded or ostracized by holiday programming taking place in a public school."

In addition to a synopsis of the legal and technical issues available online and in print, the ADL has materials to help children deal with cultural differences inevitably highlighted in December.

"December Blues" is a chapter in "What Would You Do?" a book produced by the ADL's Dream Dialogue group of teenagers. The book, used by facilitators in libraries and schools, challenges elementary school students to play out scenarios in which one person or another feels left out.

For information or to order materials, visit www.adl.org or call (310) 446-8000. -- SSR

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