As a young Jewish student in the '60s, Robin Siegal believed that Chanukah was basically ignored in the public schools she attended, which included Hamilton High School. "It was like there was this big birthday party for Jesus, and I wasn't invited," remembered the Beverlywood resident, now the mother of three.
With two of her children now attending Hamilton and her third at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES), Siegal is relieved to see acknowledgment of diversity within the Los Angeles public school system.
While religion is not a part of public school curriculum the way it is in a parochial schools, these days most schools acknowledge the various winter holidays like Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and Ramadan. Often, holiday traditions are incorporated into lesson plans. But does Chanukah get equal billing?
"I don't believe we favor either Chanukah or Christmas," said Jennifer Noblett, principal of Hawthorne School in the Beverly Hills Unified School District. "We try to celebrate everyone's diversity, customs and traditions, because sometimes family traditions aren't really related to religious affiliation."
At Paul Revere Charter Middle School in Brentwood, there are no Christmas trees or menorahs adorning the walls at holiday time. "We just don't do those things," said principal Teresa Riddle. She said some of the administrative offices may have winter displays, but nothing that blatantly promotes any holiday.
Like many other Los Angeles schools, Revere students will perform in a winter musical with Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa music. The Christmas tunes, Riddle said, will consist mostly of "nonsectarian songs about winter and snowmen."
Publicist Carol Eisner, whose three children are among students at LACES and Hamilton, has also noticed changes in cultural acceptance since her school days.
"There's so much more openness about being Jewish in a nonsectarian environment," said Eisner, who lives in the Pico-Robertson area. "Before, it was like you're a Jew singing Christmas songs, and that's how it's going to be."
"Now the word 'holiday' is pervasive," she said. "It's a general word that includes everybody."
Instead of calling the late-December extended vacation a "Christmas break," many schools call it "winter break" or "winter recess."
As a public school advocate, Rabbi Marc Dworkin of Leo Baeck Temple and the Progressive Jewish Alliance agreed that the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) appears to respect diversity now more than ever. However, he suggested that Jewish parents check with their children and remind them of the significance of their roots.
"The first step is to make sure that your children understand the deeper meaning of the holiday of Chanukah and not just the commercial aspects that compete with Christmas," Dworkin said. "Also, in a system [as large as LAUSD] ... you can't safeguard against every comment or every incident."
Siegal, a social worker, believes that educating her children about Chanukah also means expressing the realities of American society. "Our culture is not balanced and [as Jews], we're definitely the minority," she said.
Siegal does not expect public schools to give Chanukah "equal time." In addition, she believes that the predominately gentile public school community should not be responsible for teaching her children about Judaism. Her solution is to supplement her children's education by sending them to Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am.
Still, Susan Kogan, the assistant principal at Third Street Elementary School in Hancock Park, said her school believes it is important to teach the children about holidays from a cultural, rather than religious perspective. "Several of our non-Jewish teachers actually make potato pancakes for the kids on Chanukah," she said.