Rabbi Joel Alter: Keep traditions distinct | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Rabbi Joel Alter: Keep traditions distinct


Major winter holidays might overlap on the Gregorian calendar this year, but Rabbi Joel Alter recommends interfaith families keep the celebrations distinct. 

Alter, the rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid in Glendale, says Chanukah and Christmas share some messages, but they are not counterparts within their respective faiths. Interfaith families observing both celebrations should find a way to do that “without melting them into one holiday with two different colors of wrapping paper,” Alter said. 

“I encourage them to strive to honor the integrity of the respective traditions and to squeeze each of the holidays for its particular message, for its particular blessing, rather than to blend them into a single expression,” he said. 

Alter suggested interfaith families take time to consider which aspects they want to emphasize this year from each of Chanukah and Christmas. They can think about which facets they want to learn about and what they’d like to internalize. 

With that approach, Alter said, families will have the opportunity to see the winter as a season full of “avenues to blessing” instead of treating the holidays as, effectively, one in the same. 

A theme of both holidays is the idea of light within darkness, Alter said. On that shared theme, he suggested interfaith families examine what is the source of light in the story of Chanukah and the story of Christmas. 

For Chanukah, Alter said, families could also think about the messages conveyed by the story of lighting the lamp, knowing the oil was enough to last just one day. 

“In the face of that, in a sense, certain failure, the decision nonetheless to light the lamp is an incredible leap of faith,” he said. 

Alter added that his suggestion to keep celebrations of the holidays distinct is not out of a sense of denigration for Christmas. The holidays simply are separate, he said. He noted that the energy families bring to decorating their homes ahead of Christmas is the same energy he brings to his family’s celebration of Sukkot. 

“It’s not like, ‘Oh, the holidays are here: Christmas and Chanukah,’” Alter said. “No. We’re following our cycle. Christianity is following its cycle. Both happen to have holidays that some years land in the same place on the calendar and other years don’t.” 

This month, we’re asking local rabbis about advice for interfaith families. For more on this series, see “Introduction: Counseling interfaith families.”