When Jill Archer was a child, Christmas was exactly the sort of big deal one would expect from a Midwestern Christian upbringing, with a household full of Christmas cookies and decorations, and children fervently crafting their wish lists for Santa Claus
“My siblings and I would spend countless nights revising our wish lists while fighting over the pages of the beloved Sears and Roebuck Toy Catalog,” Jill said. “And the decorations in our home would [have] put Martha Stewart out of business.”
But when Jill was older, she met, fell in love with, and married a Jewish man named George Idelman, and her “life changed dramatically.”
When they had been married for about six years, and their five-year-old son Justin was about to start kindergarten, Jill and George made the decision to join Temple Israel.
“It was time to raise our son with Jewish values,” she said.
Karli Newman was also raised in a Christian family, one for whom the holidays were more about Santa than Jesus. She didn’t attend church services with any regularity and Christmas was a time for the family to spend together.
“My favorite memories of the season revolved around sharing the stories of each ornament as it was hung on the tree, the anticipation of Santa’s arrival and the excitement each Christmas morning when the gifts were there under the tree,” Karli said.
Like Jill Idelman, Karli also married a Jewish man, Jody Newman, but having grown up in a secular household and having no deeply felt ties to Christianity, embracing her husband’s Jewish heritage was an easy choice, though she did not want to fully abandon the holiday memories of her youth.
“My husband’s childhood memories of Chanukah were centered around being with family and the great food his mother made during the holiday,” Karli said. “He and I decided early on that we would incorporate [traditions from both families] into our own family celebrations. We told [our children] that Santa loves all children and will visit the homes of children who believe in him no matter their religion.”
Each year, the Newmans put up a Christmas tree, and they also light the menorah on each night of Chanukah. And, of course, “latkes and noodle kugel are a must-have.”
As Jill Idelman learned more and more about the community she was joining, as she fully embraced her burgeoning Judaism, the Jewish community returned her embrace wholeheartedly.
“The Outreach Organization at Temple Israel welcomed our family with open arms,” Jill said. “I became very active in its programming and even served as Outreach Committee Co-Chair for a few years. Each November we held a special program called ‘December Dilemma.’ That program helped me understand that it was okay to ‘mourn’ missing Christmas.”
In fact, Jill struggled early on with society as her new Jewish identity was still in its formative stages, and the December Dilemma program helped her realize that her Jewishness wasn’t under attack every time she heard Christmas music on the radio.
“I learned to accept the fact that if I wanted to listen to a Christmas song or be appreciative of an excited holiday shopper that would say ‘Merry Christmas,’ I could respond comfortably with ‘Same to you,’ and not feel my Jewish Identity was at stake,” Jill said. “I eventually became okay with the fact that my children’s public school was challenged with recognizing that there were Jewish students in Omaha that didn’t understand what ‘Away in the Manger’ really meant. I was protective of my early Jewish identity, but learned that it could not be taken away from me by a once-a-year holiday that did bring up past reminders of my childhood.”
Karli Newman has never really felt uncomfortable with her family’s decisions about how to celebrate the winter holidays, something she attributes to neither she nor her husband being raised with “a strict religious upbringing.”
When their children, Bailey, Spencer and Zoey, were younger, Karli and Jody explained to them the differences between Christmas and Chanukah, and the importance placed upon the holidays by their respective religions, and they read Chanukah stories. But as the kids have gotten older, the focus has shifted.
“Family, family, family,” Karli said. “To us, it is about creating warm memories for our kids and sharing time together.”
Karli also believes, due in no small part to her own experiences, that no matter how a family decides to celebrate the holidays, stick with it and don’t let anyone tell you your way isn’t “the right way.”
“What works for you may not work for anyone else and there is nothing wrong with that,” Karli said. “It really alleviates any stress you may be feeling.”
Despite it being “the best decision [she] ever made,” some members of Jill Idelman’s family didn’t fully understand or accept their daughter and sister’s decision to embrace Judaism, which caused a fair amount of tsuris at first.
“They still struggle with the fact that I am not part of their Christmas tradition,” Jill said. “I am sure they had their own type of mourning at that first Christmas I was not part of the celebration.”
However, Jill points out, that same family “proudly celebrated the B’nai Mitzvah of my sons at Temple Israel.”
Whatever differences may have arisen because of Jill’s conversion to Judaism, her parents still stood on the bima as she read from the Torah on her sons’ special days.
“We have come a long way from Christmas stockings and the Sears and Roebuck Toy Catalog,” Jill said. “Was it easy? Not necessarily. But we all have been blessed with moments of celebration that keep us true to our old and new traditions.”
The December Dilemma program that helped Jill Idelman acknowledge her Christian past without feeling that her Jewish identity was being threatened no longer exists at Temple Israel, but the clergy, in conjunction with members of the congregation, are working on new interfaith programming for the coming year that they hope will benefit the entire community.
“We have an incredibly strong group of interfaith families at Temple Israel who are committed to living Jewishly,” Rabbi Josh Brown said. “And my past experience has shown that engagement by interfaith families increases participation by the whole community.”
Rabbi Brown is aware that interfaith families don’t always feel comfortable in the Jewish community and he hopes the upcoming programs will alleviate that discomfort.
“One of the biggest challenges in interfaith families is, they’re not always comfortable in the Jewish community and we want to remedy that,” he said. “We want to make sure every member of our community, and their families, feel welcome at Temple, to feel that Temple Israel is their home just as much as anybody else, because it is.”