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10 Ways to Make December More Jewish

December 4, 2014 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Helping kids enjoy being Jewish during December – and all year round.

“My daughter is obsessed with all the holiday activities in her school,” a friend recently told me. Another friend confided that her children were begging their Jewish parents to buy a Christmas tree. Each year the “December Dilemma” – the task of guiding our kids through the season of other people’s holidays – gets tougher. How can we balance our children’s enjoyment of the season with pride in being Jewish?

Here is a list of ten ideas I’ve seen work first-hand to help kids enjoy being Jewish during December – and all year round.

1. Charity, with a Jewish flavor.

This December, when everyone seems to be raising money for various charities, take part with a Jewish twist: try raising money to help beleaguered Jewish communities in Israel and around the world.

Opportunities abound. For instance, Chicago’s Jewish community raised money to build the world’s first bomb-proof indoor playground in Sderot, a town in southern Israel that has endured thousands of rocket and mortar attacks from nearby Gaza. Toronto’s Jewish community has established a fund to raise money for Toronto-born Howie Rothman who was seriously wounded in the Har Nof massacre. Consider reaching out to your local synagogue to find out about your own community’s fund-raising needs.

Try making charity – tzedaka in Hebrew – a regular part of your family’s daily life, too. If you don’t already have a tzedaka box, try decorating one at home and display it prominently. Make putting money in it a regular part of your family’s routine. (In my own home, my husband and I try to reinforce the Jewish dictum to give 10% of our income to charity by having our kids donate a tenth of their pocket money each time they receive gifts or allowance.) Make kids part of the discussion: talk about what Jewish-themed charity you’d like to support, and why.

2. Take a time-out.

When December hype gets too much, take a breather by checking out a Jewish environment you haven’t been to before. Eat out at a kosher restaurant. Consider attending a Jewish lecture or class. Remind yourself that in some quarters, life in December goes on as normal.

3. Celebrate Shabbat.

Shabbat provides the perfect setting to celebrate in a Jewish setting. When everyone around seems to be busy getting ready for festive gatherings of their own, try planning a beautiful Shabbat meal of your own for family and friends. If observing Shabbat is new for you, start with Shabbat dinner: plan a festive menu, and invite over family to share the evening. (If you have time, try including kids in the preparations. My own kids love kneading and braiding challah by hand: there’s something about getting things ready themselves that really involves kids and gets them excited about the meal.)

Take a leaf out of traditional Jewish observance and try turning off electronics: focus instead on being together: talking, taking a walk, even playing board games. This family together time can surprise you, becoming the highlight of the week.

4. Celebrate learning.

The root of the word Chanukah is the same as chinuch, Hebrew for education. Chanukah is traditionally a time to focus on our kids’ (and our own) Jewish learning. This December, try learning something new. Select a Jewish book to read together as a family, or research a Jewish topic.

You can take this tradition a step further, too, and plan a party when you’re finished: this celebration is called a siyum (or “completion”) in Hebrew, and are held in Jewish communities to celebrate finishing studying a Jewish book. Consider setting a goal of studying a traditional Jewish text, then holding a party to celebrate your accomplishment!

5. Plan your summer.

One way to escape the December Dilemma is on-line: researching your summer plans. Brainstorm ways you can strengthen your family’s Jewish connections next summer. You might consider Jewish summer camp, or even start planning a trip to Israel.

While you’re at it, check to see if your local Jewish camps run winter programs in December, too. These mini-programs are a great way for Jewish kids to bond during winter vacation, make new friends, and have fun in a Jewish setting.

6. Upgrade your Chanukah.

Jewish holidays are meant to be personal: we’re asked not only to observe them, but to internalize their message, to feel as if we’re reliving the events they commemorate. This December, try ramping up your Chanukah celebrations to make them more all-encompassing and visceral.

Start with reading a book or article that explains the story of Chanukah, and what its traditions and symbols mean. Then brainstorm ways to integrate those traditions in your own holiday celebrations: make traditional foods like latkes and doughnuts not only one night, but all eight. Learn Chanukah songs. Try saying some of the traditional Chanukah prayers. Set aside an hour to have an actual game of dreidel – with gelt. Place your Chanukah menorah in a window. The more we do to celebrate Chanukah, the greater its hold on us and our children, and the more significant this beautiful Jewish holiday will feel.

7. Visit a nursing home.

One year, a local rabbi asked me if I’d be willing to celebrate Chanukah at a local nursing home. My kids were very young at the time and I wasn’t sure how they would behave visiting a home. But the rabbi was desperate. So with several toddlers in tow I drove to the nursing home with my menorah and some chocolate gelt in a bag.

The response was overwhelming. Our visit was the only Chanukah celebration in the entire nursing home. We spent hours there, talking with residents, singing Chanukah songs – and have returned year after year, with friends to join us. This year, consider calling a local nursing home and asking what their Chanukah needs are. It’s a wonderful privilege to help residents celebrate and to bring a Jewish feeling into their home.

8. Make your home an oasis.

Make your home a refuge from the December Dilemma by giving your kids something fun to experience in a Jewish way. Play Jewish CDs at home. Look up different Jewish foods on-line and experiment with cooking them at home. Put out Jewish books to read. Remind your kids (and yourself!) that being Jewish isn’t only for the holidays: there’s a lot to enjoy every day, too.

9. Check out synagogue.

Synagogue isn’t only for the holidays. Consider attending a local synagogue to connect with other Jews and get a dose of spirituality – during December, and any time. Synagogues aren’t only for services, too: many host classes and lectures, and fun events. My own synagogue, for instance, serves a Shabbat lunch each Saturday after services; call and ask what programs are on offer – the answer might surprise you.

10. You don’t have to go it alone.

Invite over other Jewish families and friends and get creative. You can plan a structured event like a party or charitable project, or just hang out. A neighbor of mine recently held a Jewish food tasting for her friends. Facing December as part of a wider community can help make this season fun, and the closeness it generates can carry over and enrich the whole year.

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