Thoughts for Thanksgiving

I truly enjoy Thanksgiving.  It is so American and so Jewish at the same time.  The turkey, the pumpkin pie, the incipient American spirit of self-reliance dressed in Pilgrim costumes are all red, white, and blue images.  But the idea of leaving one’s birth place, the land of one’s ancestors, and of going to a new land, bolstered by an irreplaceable optimism about the human potential to build a new and better world, these are ideals straight from the Torah.

Read about Noah, the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets.  Each experienced a summons to the awesome task to build a new and better world.  Noah responded to the imperative command: “Get yourself out of the Ark…”  Abraham responded to the imperative command: “Get yourself out of the country and from your father’s house…”  Every one of the Biblical figures responded to a Divine imperative which, in short, compelled them to labor for a new and better world.  They were the heroes and repairers of a damaged human drama.  They dreamed of ladders to heaven with each rung a step forward on behalf of equity, freedom, and human dignity.

No less the stalwart pioneers of former years came to view this new shore for precisely the same purpose.  The old world of strife and bigotry, of failed hopes and stifled dreams was abandoned.  Families uprooted themselves despite great trepidation to grasp for a different destiny.  They came to America because they believed in the capacity of human intelligence and imagination, to illumine life with Israel’s ancient promise: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all inhabitants thereof.”

For me, a teacher of Jewish tradition, this means that America has a social justice system responsibility.  This is the Jewish part of Thanksgiving.  We rejoice gratefully for the abundance of this great land, but we must also hear the Divine summons to take responsibility.  My friends, that is what America, at its best, is all about: a place to heal and repair a damaged world.

Thanksgiving is a compelling summons to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless.  Yes, we have known times where our resources- both human and natural- have been exploited.  But that is not what we are about.  We are meant to be a beacon of justice and freedom, not a second-place of failed hopes and stifled dreams.  That was the old world.  We are in the new.

As we observe our Thanksgiving day, may our hearts throb joyously with the images and ideals bequeathed by Pilgrim’s pride and biblical literalism.  May we live up to the ideals from which we were born.  And, as we enter into the twilight of one year and the dawn of the next, may our example be one of kindness, of generosity… of hope.

Published in: on November 23, 2010 at 3:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

December Dilemma

I received this today and, after fielding a number of calls and emails over the last week, I thought it worth posting.

“Our family is Jewish and in my daughter’s third-grade class, the teacher decorated her classroom for the holidays and incorporated the holidays in her lessons. There is a Christmas tree in the classroom, and the room is decorated with gifts, snowflakes, reindeer, cut-outs of Santa Claus, a small nativity scene, and Jewish stars. My daughter told me that the students sang Christmas and Chanukah songs and acted in the school’s Christmas Pageant. Right before Winter Break, the teacher threw a holiday party in the classroom, and the children could sit on Santa’s lap and ask him for gifts. Can they do this in a public school?”

As the December holidays approach, many Jewish families are faced with an overwhelming emphasis on Christmas in the public schools. Schools must comply with the United States Constitution and the Anti-Defamation League encourages them to create a school environment that respects differing points of view concerning religion. ADL is one of the nation’s premier organizations defending religious liberty.

ADL’s answer to the above scenario: Some of these activities are allowed and others are troublesome. Public schools do have the right to teach about the holidays, decorate classrooms with seasonal displays that recognize Christmas and Chanukah and hold a holiday concert that includes some religious songs. However, parents need to be aware of specific guidelines that guarantee your school is not violating legal mandates. To that end, we can offer workshops for your synagogue, school or organization that address these December Dilemma issues and how to deal with them.

Below is a general list of guidelines. Please feel free to share this information with parents.

• General Rule: When a school chooses to acknowledge the December holidays, it is essential that the school must never appear to endorse religion over non-religion or one particular religious faith over another.

• Public schools must remain free from activities that could involve religious coercion. Because of their young age, students are particularly impressionable and susceptible to pressure to conform to the beliefs of the majority. Schools must take care to avoid endorsing the beliefs, practices or traditions of the majority religion.

• Schools must be careful not to cross the line between teaching about religious holidays (which is permitted) and celebrating religious holidays (which is not). Celebrating religious holidays in the form of religious worship or other practices is unconstitutional. Teaching about a holiday will be constitutional if it furthers a genuine secular program of education, is presented objectively, and does not have the effect of endorsing, advancing or inhibiting religion.

• Special school events, assemblies, concerts and programs must be designed to further a secular and objective program of education and must not focus on any one religion or religious observance. Religious music or drama may be included in school events, but the reason for including that music must be to advance a secular educational goal. Such events must not promote or denigrate any particular religion, serve as a religious celebration, or become a forum for religious devotion.

• Religious symbols are not appropriate seasonal decorations in public schools. The classroom and school premises are the place where children spend the majority of their day. It is important that all students feel comfortable and accepted in their school. Symbols of religious holidays may make some students uncomfortable and unwelcome because their holidays and traditions are not represented or because they do not celebrate religious holidays at all.

• Students may participate in student-led and student-initiated activities that acknowledge or celebrate the holidays on the same terms that they can participate in non-religious activity. School officials may neither discourage nor encourage participation in the event, nor should they be sending the message that the school endorses the event. School officials also have an obligation to ensure that students who are not inclined to participate are not coerced in any way by fellow students who are participating. Finally, school personnel cannot promote or participate in such events in their official capacities, although they may be present to monitor the event for compliance with school rules.

ADL has a number of publications that can be of help.

• The December Dilemma — December Holiday Guidelines for Public Schools
• Religion in the Public Schools — A comprehensive look at the law of religion in the public schools in an easy to understand and use format
• Religious Issues in your Child’s Public School: A Guide for Jewish Parents

Copies of these publications are available by visiting the ADL web site, at or by calling the Southeast Regional office at 404-262-3470.
If you would like to schedule a workshop on December Dilemma, please contact me.


Shelley Rose
Associate Director
Anti-Defamation League
3490 Piedmont Road, Suite 610
Atlanta, Georgia 30305
Phone: 404-262-3470
Cell: 678-938-1399
Fax: 404-262-3548

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Published in: on November 9, 2010 at 1:30 am  Leave a Comment