Like many Jewish families, the Lerners of Blue Bell have a cherished Christmas tradition.
“Every single year, we go see Disney on Ice on Christmas Eve afternoon,” said Brandi Lerner, an American Sign Language interpreter and the mother of 6-year-old Ethan and 3-year-old Chloe. What began as an outing with three other Jewish friends from Tiferet Bet Israel — the Lerners’ shul — grew to 40 temple families last year.
So this Dec. 24, the group has booked a club box for 100 people at the Wells Fargo Center. After the show, they’ll go to a restaurant while their Christian neighbors bake hams or head to midnight mass. “It’s become this great tradition,” said Lerner.
Of course, many Jewish families’ December ritual is a getaway to Florida, the Caribbean or someplace else with palm trees. But like the Lerners, many who stay around Philadelphia seek out local diversion over schools’ winter (read: Christmas-to-secular-New Year) break. When Chanukah comes early, as it does this year, filling a dozen frigid days with activity can feel all the more challenging.
Parents, don’t despair: We live in a golden age for Christmas-week Jewish programming.
“Twenty years ago, nothing was open on Christmas,” recalled Stephanie Dworkin, who devises vacation programming as marketing director at the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, N.J. “It was just Chinese food and the movies.”
Contrast that with recent Christmas Eves in Cherry Hill, when up to 400 people hit the Katz JCC for a twist on the ritual: Laughter & Lo Mein, an evening of “comedians, Chinese food and cheap drinks,” Dworkin said. The following morning, in what has become a Dec. 25 standby for hundreds of youngsters, the JCC hosts its annual “character breakfast,” a bagel-and-cereal party themed around cartoons like Dora the Explorer or Paw Patrol.
“It’s always a packed house,” said JCC Assistant Director Brian Adler. “I’ve worked it every year for 11 years, and it always, always sells out. Because if you’re a family with young Jewish kids, what exactly are you doing on Christmas Day?”
Many find the answer at Philadelphia’s National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH), where the annual Dec. 25 “Being ___ at Christmas” all-day, all-ages event is a highlight not only for Jews, but also — as the fill-in-the-blank implies — for legions of non-Christmas-celebrators. The all-day program features music, crafts, face painting and story time; Russian speakers can join the museum meetup organized by jkidphilly’s Russian group.
One trend that is gaining popularity is the Christmas Day mitzvah, in which Jews volunteer at a soup kitchen or food pantry on a day when few others are available.
Dan Salzman, a Bala Cynwyd IT professional, takes his two young daughters to hand out Christmas presents for sick children and their families at the Ronald McDonald house in Camden, N.J., which provides lodging during medical treatment. Salzman’s extended clan established the Dec. 25 tradition; his cousin, Joseph Hassman, and wife Lillian of Cherry Hill organize the event, playing Santa and Mrs. Claus.
Five-year-old Vered “rings the bell at each door and is like an elf” as she distributes bags full of gifts, said Salzman, whose younger daughter, 2-year-old Rayna, will join this year.
The caroling and pancake breakfast are fun, but Salzman also sees an opportunity to teach valuable Jewish lessons about tikkun olam and tzedakah. Vered “realizes the gifts are not for her, that this is something that makes these kids really happy,” Salzman noted. “We explain that Santa Claus isn’t in our religion, but it’s a time to celebrate other people’s tradition and enjoy it with them.”
Others who feel that way can join jkidphilly’s annual Mitzvah Morning at the Kaiserman JCC in Wynnewood; this year, as many as 200 kids will make bookmarks to promote literacy. For a growing number of Jews, observed organizer Lori Rubin, Christmas means “coming together as a community to do something,” she said. “It’s about being Jewish and doing Jewish on Christmas Day.”
Geared toward what Rubin calls “the PJ Library demographic” — toddlers through tweens — Mitzvah Morning highlights a different Jewish value each year; kids have arranged flowers for assisted-living residents, and packaged breakfasts for the hungry. A quieter, “sensory-friendly” room ensures that every child can participate, Rubin added.
Most local JCCs remain open during school vacations, providing recreation and much-needed childcare. At the Kaiserman, kindergartners through fifth-graders can enjoy sports, arts, cooking and field trips at a day camp over winter and spring breaks.
The Katz JCC in Cherry Hill has a similar program for elementary- and middle-school children, with daily trips to museums, farms and other attractions. The cabin-fever-addled of any age can buy a guest pass or a single-month membership to use the JCC’s indoor pool, basketball gym and children’s play space.
Miriam Steinberg-Egeth of Center City sends her children to the vacation camp offered by Makom Community, the Jewish organization that runs the children’s afterschool program. Staying indoors, even on the coldest days, is “not an option” for her energetic offspring, said Steinberg-Egeth, who writes the Jewish Exponent’s advice column, directs the Center City Kehillah and is a part-time doula.
On non-camp days, like many families, Steinberg-Egeth’s clan cobbles together an ad-hoc itinerary of Philadelphia’s greatest winter hits: public ice rinks, the Franklin Institute, the zoo, holiday lights around town. “Several years in a row, we’ve gone to the Comcast Christmas show on Christmas Day, and we always run into Jewish friends there,” Steinberg-Egeth laughed.
With their varying religious observances, Steinberg-Egeth’s extended family doesn’t always gather for Jewish holidays. “But we’ll all get together on Christmas Day,” said Steinberg-Egeth, who noted wryly that the holiday they don’t celebrate is the one they all have off.
The Yuletide timing may feel weird for a Jewish gathering — but having a Christmas tradition is totally a Jewish thing, counsels the advice columnist, who grew up volunteering at a local soup kitchen on Dec. 25. “We get to enjoy being Jewish on Christmas,” Steinberg-Egeth explained, “and all the things that go along with that.”
Hilary Danailova is a freelance writer.