The October Dilemma

Last December, Frank Rich of the New York Times complained that because Chanukah had arrived so early last year - around Thanksgiving, he felt something missing when Christmas arrived. Rich, an assimilated Jew, felt left out of all the joy and pageantry of the Christmas season without Chanukah to fall back to. Rich, as a Jew in America, is not alone. Each year, countless Jewish parents face the "December Dilemma" in their efforts to make up for the lack of Christmas in their children's lives. The build-up of the minor holiday of Chanukah provides small compensation in a vain attempt to compete with Christmas. Even efforts to get local public schools to insert Chanukah melodies in their "winter concerts" (read: Christmas concerts) and to get a Jewish presence in local civic activities during the Christmas shopping season cannot protect the under-observant Jewish family from being overwhelmed by the majority culture. While such efforts may be helpful and necessary, they are ultimately futile in solving the December Dilemma.

The solution to the "December Dilemma" lies in the solving of this year's "October Dilemma." What is the "October Dilemma"? Once again, Jewish parents will have to decide whether or not to send their children to school on the Jewish holidays. While most schools will be closed for Rosh Hashanah, they will be open on Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. I understand the October Dilemma. Many parents in our congregation and elsewhere feel that they need to go to work on major Jewish holidays like Sukkot; so, what to do with the children? Synagogue services and junior congregation account for the mornings, but what about the rest of the day? In addition, many parents are concerned that their children will miss important lessons if absent on religious holidays. (Actually, it is illegal according to State education law to teach new material or to conduct examinations on religious holidays.)

I do not pretend to have the blanket answer for all working parents with public school children. I am available to advise individual families. Be aware, however, that the failure of any family to deal at all with the October Dilemma will mean failure with the December Dilemma, so allow me to offer a few suggestions:

  1. Put up a family sukkah. There are easy ways to build a sukkah. Give children the chance to decorate a family sukkah, just as Christians get to adorn a family tree. If you feel that your children may be "deprived" at Christmas, do not deprive them at Sukkot and other festivals.
  2. Buy an etrog and lulav set for your children (or grandchildren) and yourself and learn about the Four Species. Hebrew School children will get to fully participate in the Sunday morning Hoshanah Rabbah (Seventh Day of Sukkot) etrog and lulav procession (parents invited). Don't leave your children out. Watch your mail for details.
  3. Do what you can to allow your children to attend at least one of the Sukkot morning services. Junior congregation will be held. The absence of any effort at all will send children the clear message that their religion is of minor importance to you and to them. All the hours of Hebrew School will not make up for that. I know that it is not easy for two-earner families, but families with at least one parent at home can certainly take their children to the synagogue.
  4. Learn more about the festivals and the Jewish calendar yourself. Basic courses in Judaism will be offered in the community both in the fall and in the spring. At the very least, take and study one of the Jewish calendars available in our lobby. There is no excuse for any adult Jew not to know when major Jewish holidays occur each year. The synagogue and the Hebrew School depend on parents to reinforce classroom lessons. At least know the dates for the holidays.

Again, I know that the October Dilemma will not be easy for many families. But my fellow rabbis and I, together with the various Jewish agencies and political leaders, have worked hard to defend the rights of Jewish school children; please don't undermine our efforts. I do not expect perfection, but only that we all try our best. Failure to deal with the October Dilemma will leave your family with Frank Rich's feeling of emptiness when it comes time to face the December Dilemma. For the sake of your children, for the sake of your grandchildren, for your own sake, and for the sake of Jewish continuity, share in the richness, beauty and joy of Sukkot and all Festivals at the synagogue and in your home.

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