JCRC develops intercultural holiday guide

For years, while many Bay Area Jews were shining their chanukiot and frying up latkes, Riva Gambert was scrambling to help Jewish families deal with Christmas programs in schools.

This year will be different.

The associate director of the East Bay Jewish Community Relations Council has a jump start heading off the yearly "December dilemma," with a curriculum guide for administrators, superintendents and teachers called "December Holiday Programming: An Inclusivist Approach for all Traditions."

Written by Madeline Weinstein, former JCRC chair and director of the private Lakeview Preschool in Oakland, the guide is a practical approach to dealing with diversity during the December holidays.

It includes explanations of such holidays as Chanukah and Kwanzaa, the difficulties of Christmas celebrations in the classroom, and alternatives to traditional school holiday programs.

"December Holiday Programming" grew out of Weinstein's own experiences during 25 years of wrestling with the holiday season.

"I had to develop my own philosophy for what is and is not appropriate for my preschool, for my students [who] range in observance from Jewish to Seventh-day Adventist," Weinstein said. "I had to find a place I could personally feel comfortable for the students in my care."

However, many East Bay parents were concerned that other educators were not making similar efforts.

"A number of parents came to me over the years and said what I was doing felt comfortable to them, but [they] were worried about what was happening to their older children," Weinstein said.

"They were frustrated with a lack of understanding and training [by teachers]. When they got the nerve to approach the teachers, they [the teachers] were either hostile or condescending. The approach was what was good for the majority was good for everyone."

In fact, Weinstein said, parents from Piedmont, Oakland and all over Contra Costa County shared tales of teachers saying things like, "You're denying your children happiness by not allowing them to have Santa Claus in their lives."

However, most instructors were not malevolent, "just insular," she said. Gambert said JCRC efforts, including a calendar of Jewish holidays sent out each spring for the following year, only solved part of the problem.

Schools might not schedule exams or begin the semester on Jewish holidays, but December programming was a different story. And by the time a parent called Gambert to say "my child's school is having a holiday pageant, which includes one Chanukah song and eight Christmas carols," it's too late, she said.

"These considerations need to be brought to teachers early on. It needs to be explained to teachers in a positive light, with an attitude of `let's sit down and work together.' Otherwise you put teachers under stress and they're less likely to make changes."

With that in mind, Weinstein begins her guide by explaining its guiding principles: sensitivity to other traditions. "If what we do in our classrooms makes even one student feel uncomfortable, unworthy or conflicted in any way, then the fact that we may be teaching appropriately to the rest of the class is not an acceptable rationale for our practices," she writes.

Weinstein goes on to propose methods teachers can use to avoid such cultural exclusivity. She suggests they conduct class programs, songs and activities focusing on winter solstice or the concept of light in the darkness of winter — candles are part of the ritual of Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa — rather than handing out red and green construction paper to create holiday greeting cards.

The goal, Gambert said, is not to say "you can't teach Christmas. Children like learning about holidays and teachers don't have time to create wholly new curriculums. The approach instead is to find what we all have in common at this time of year and how we can celebrate together."

Printed by a grant from the East Bay Jewish Federation Endowment Fund, "December Holiday Programming" will be distributed to superintendents of East Bay schools at a meeting late next month.

"We're giving educators something concrete," Gambert said. "We can't just go into schools and say, `You can't do this, you can't do that.' We have to give them an alternative."

The JCRC will continue to monitor East Bay schools to ensure that in December, and year round, the schools do not violate the constitutional separation of church and state. The JCRC hopes parents will help in the effort.

"They're the consumers," Gambert said of parents. But the separation of church and state gets blurred often because parents don't know the law and "no one [is] complaining."