Jewish residents celebrate amidst Christmas cheer

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

When Bethany Lieberman’s oldest son was about 11 years old, he got “very serious” about being Jewish, according to his mother.

“People would say ‘merry Christmas,’ and my son would say very firmly ‘happy Hanukkah,’” said Lieberman, explaining that her younger son did the same thing.

“They were never rude, but they did go through a year or so where they were very frustrated because it was automatically assumed that everybody was Christian,” continued Lieberman, who moved to Williston three years ago from the Boston area.

According to the American Jewish Committee, about 5,500 Vermont residents are affiliated with Jewish federations or synagogues, more than half of those in Burlington. However, these numbers do not account for unaffiliated Jews. As a result, there is no official count of the Vermont Jewish population.

When Judaism is acknowledged during the month of December, it often is in the form of Hanukkah.

“Often people see Hanukkah as the Jewish Christmas, and it really isn’t,” said Judy Alexander, education director at Temple Sinai in South Burlington. “Hanukkah is a minor holiday, but it’s taken on more significance as far as where it falls in the calendar because it is so close to Christmas.”

Rabbi Joshua Chasan of Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington also pointed to the minor role that Hanukkah plays in the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot and Passover are more significant Jewish holidays.

“The wonder and excitement that many Christians feel around Christmas Eve and Christmas morning has a parallel around Passover for us,” Chasan said.

Sheryl Foxman, who has lived in Williston for 18 years, said there are challenges living in a state where such a small percentage of people understand Judaism.

“The Jewish population has grown, but it will never, ever be what it’s like in a big city,” Foxman said last week by phone. “It’s been quite an experience here. I was like the representative Jew” when her daughters were younger, said Foxman, who explained Jewish high holy days to her daughters’ classes.

Lieberman has had similar experiences. The first year the family lived in Williston, she said her children had sports events and play practice scheduled on high holy days, when Jews are expected to be in synagogue.

“I think that people here try to be sensitive to the differences, but they’re just not fully aware,” Lieberman said.

When major school activities are scheduled on a Jewish high holy day, “the children are forced to make a choice,” said Lieberman, whose family, like Foxman’s, attends Temple Sinai.

“Now a Rabbi would tell you there is no choice. But for a child who is the lead in a play,” that is hard, Lieberman continued. Now Lieberman said she calls schools as schedules are being set to tell them the dates of upcoming Jewish holidays.

Foxman also noted the challenge of living in a world in which time off is granted for Christian holidays – like Christmas – but not for those she recognizes.

“That’s always been hard, when you have these holidays you want to observe but you have to work,” Foxman said. “Or kids (have) homework to do when you want to be festive and hang out with your family.”

Rabbi Chasan said it is important to remember that there are a large number of intermarried families, where one spouse converted to Judaism upon marriage, and as a result there are close family ties to Christians.

“The connections are very personal; many Jews accept with wonder the beauty of Christmas,” Chasan said. “And at the same time, we feel the challenge to define and teach our own culture in the midst of all the red and green.”