This article was originally published on Christmas Eve, December 24th, 2013, by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.
Instead of taking a day off, Jews should make Christmas a ‘day on;’ with community service for those in need.
The morning of December 25 begins in my home with much excitement. We wake up, run downstairs, and open up the… menus and movie listings. We plan our “Chinese food and a movie” Christmas day outing that seemingly every other American Jew participates in. America shuts down, with nothing but Chinese restaurants and movie theaters open. This federal holiday is not our holiday and thus, we aren’t quite sure how to deal with it. But the truth is the Movie and Chinese Food inside joke is outdated. We eat egg rolls and catch a flick, not because these are the only places open on Christmas Day, but because hiding indoors allow us to hide who we are. We are uncomfortable being the minority when it seems like the world around us is celebrating a holiday that is not ours.
The Jewish community’s discomfort with Christmas dates back to the 17th century, when Jews observed Christmas Eve as Nittel Nacht, a day in which they refrained from appearing in public out of fear of sieges and physical anti-Jewish expressions and acts by the Christian community. Hundreds of years later, the Jewish community still doesn’t know how to deal with being a minority in a Christian society.
Instead of hiding indoors with Chinese food and movie marathons, we Jews should embrace Christmas day. No, I am not suggesting that we celebrate Christmas, but I am suggesting that we help others do so.
The millennial generation is wired through community service. According to a study of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, “Jewish young adults indicate a commitment to civic engagement and being agents of civic change. Sixty-four percent of Jewish young adults report that ‘making the world a better place’ is an essential element of their Jewish identity and 56% report participating in some kind of community service or volunteer activity in [the year in question].”
Christmas is our opportunity to turn December 25 into a day of volunteering and doing mitzvahs. There is nothing greater than helping others, so why not help others celebrate their own holidays? If we engage in service learning on this day and commit to helping others, we help make the world a better place, and assist others in celebrating their holiday. Just as U.S. President Barack Obama declared that Martin Luther King Day should be a day of community service, a day “on,” not a day off, the Jewish community could embrace Christmas as a day service to the larger community, to make the world a better place.
Tomorrow morning, December 25, members of my congregation will cook and deliver hundreds of holiday meals to elderly and homebound residents of our city, ensuring that they will not go hungry and can properly celebrate their holiday – even if it is not our holiday – with a festive meal. Our community also assembled packages of baked goods and will deliver them to first responders, police officers, firefighters, and EMTs who are on call on their holiday, committed to keeping us safe.
For almost a decade, the Baltimore Jewish community has turned Christmas day into their annual Mitzvah Day, making blankets and bagged meals for the homeless, and encouraging members of the community to visit nursing homes and children’s hospitals to spread holiday cheer. We fear spreading holiday cheer when it is not our holiday. We fear enjoying the holiday celebrations of another’s faith. We fear exposing our children to Christmas because we don’t want them to be too drawn to the bright lights and snowmen that the commercialization of Christmas brings. Yet Pirkei Avot teaches that we should greet everyone with a cheerful smile. Spreading warmth during the cold and lonely days of winter, bringing a smile to one’s face who feels alone on his or her holiday is not rejoicing in another’s holiday. Rather, it is rejoicing in the ethics and values of Jewish tradition, and using those values to help others celebrate. This is not something we should fear; this is something we should embrace.
Instead of taking the day off because others are celebrating their holiday, make it a day of meaning, a day of doing good, and a day committed to repairing the world. Before you pick up your chopsticks, make sure that those who are hungry also have food on their table. Before you go into a warm indoor cinema, invite those who are on the streets fighting the wintry conditions into the warmth as well. Before you take advantage of a day off, make it a day on by helping others. Here’s hoping that on December 25, 2014, synagogues and Jewish institutions will remain open and open up their doors to those in need.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky