Specter of empty chairs haunts Hebrew schools on Halloween

When Steven Solomon started as educational-youth director at a New Jersey Jewish school 18 years ago, most students played hooky on Halloween.

"It made me feel that Halloween was more important than Hebrew school, and that was the wrong message," Solomon said. "Halloween is not a Jewish holiday. It's All Saints' Day."

Today nearly 80 percent attend Hebrew school when Halloween falls on a school day, Solomon said. Masks are removed and painted faces washed. If a child asks why, teachers discuss Halloween's origins.

"I'm deluding myself to think that the kids aren't going trick-or-treating," he said. "But I'm just happy in most cases that the parents are sending their kids to Hebrew school."

Jewish families, especially those with children, must decide every year where to draw the line about celebrating a holiday with strong pagan and Christian roots. For Orthodox families, the answer is easy. They don't celebrate. If the children like costumes, parents remind them that Purim is a wonderful Jewish holiday. But for other families, the line can be fuzzy.

"We discourage parents by asking them not to let their kids celebration Halloween," said Rabbi Eliot Malomet, principal of a religious school in Highland Park, N.J. "We encourage parents to find creative alternatives."

"The Jewish religion is rich in holidays and traditions in which children can participate and enjoy," said Rabbi Shraga Gross, principal of Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva, an Orthodox day school in Edison, N.J. "We see no need for them to participate in a celebration that is not based in Jewish tradition."

Public schools make a tremendous issue out of Halloween with parties, costumes and candy, Solomon said.

"But believe me, parents aren't into Halloween," he said. "What happens is because of the kid. They see their friends trick-or-treating. It's tough for a kid to say, `I'm Jewish; I don't want to celebrate Halloween.'"

Halloween is thought to have originated among early pagans in the British Isles, who believed that at on this night, the spirits of the dead returned to earth. Some Jewish educators view any form of celebrating Halloween as practicing and believing in evil spirits.

"I tell parents it's not a Jewish festival," said Rabbi David Bassous of Sephardic Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park, N.J. "Halloween is the opposite of what we believe. We believe God is all powerful and to attribute powers to other beings is detracting from God's power."

Bassous, who is Orthodox, said Jews are not to believe in or practice magic, wizardry or witchcraft.

"It is not fitting for Jews, who are to give such intellectual and moral examples to the world, to believe in such mumbo jumbo," Bassous said. "So a lot of parents are making a big mistake by encouraging this celebration."

He said that by celebrating Halloween, parents affirm to their children that such things as witches exist.

"People become evil because they believe in evil," he said.

Police forces in central New Jersey say criminal mischief rises as Halloween approaches. Patrols are beefed up during this time of the year to prevent vandalism.

At the Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, a Reform congregation in New Brunswick, N.J., educational director Rebecca Glass said the 354-student school for prekindergarten to 12th grade doesn't generally send out a "dear parent" letter because that would draw attention to Halloween. However, when a parent says a child will skip religious school because it's Halloween, that's an opportunity for her to teach parents about the holiday.

"I would say that a majority of the younger ones do celebrate it," said Glass. "It's become secular and part of the culture. When you teach a lesson about Sukkot, you compare and contrast it to Thanksgiving because that's something the kids can relate to. But with Halloween, there's no reason to mention it at all."

Pnina Steinberg, principal at Conservative Temple Beth O'r/Beth Torah in Clark, N.J., said that as an educator and a Jew it is her job to discourage Jewish parents from allowing their children to celebrate Halloween.

"The activity of trick-or-treating shouldn't be at the cost of attending Hebrew school," said Debbie Kornberg, director of education at Neve Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Metuchen. "I feel there's plenty of time to trick-or-treat afterwards."

Kornberg, who is in charge of 220 students attending Hebrew school and high school, said she sends out a letter before Halloween. The letter addresses Halloween's pagan and Christian influences, and that missing classes for Halloween or any other secular activity teaches children that Jewish learning is a matter of convenience, not conviction.

Nonetheless, attendance last year fell under 50 percent, compared with the usual 90 percent attendance level during the year.

Diane Bobbins of Colonia, a board member of Temple Beth O'r/Beth Torah with two children, said although Halloween is a non-Jewish holiday, "We always let the kids go trick-or-treating. But when there's a conflict with religious school, religious school comes first. Then they may go trick-or-treating."

Trick-or-treater Benjamin Heisler, the 9-year-old son of Steve Heisler and Karen Kanter of Highland Park, explained his priorities.

"Religious school is more important than trick-or-treating because religion teaches me to be nice," he said.