“It’s the most wonderful time of the year” - you can try to read that without singing it but it’s hard. Yes...Chanukah season is upon us and it is finally getting cold enough to feel like it. Time to start grating your potatoes, find your Chanukiyah (Chanukah menorah), and figure out where your decorations are. In my fifty years of celebrating Chanukah it is also feels like it’s time for me to start figuring out how manage the feelings of growing up Jewish during Christmas time. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago that was considered a Jewish Suburb, I went to school with what seemed like “Mostly Jews” and there was a synagogue every ½ mile...so why did I end up feeling like I was on the outside looking in every December? Looking back...I think that my life was mostly Jewish, filled with mostly Jews, but the world I lived in wasn’t. I can remember during our holiday concert...there was one Chanukah song and the rest was trying to figure out the words to “Good King Wenceslas” and “Silent Night”. Like many people each year I loved seeing the Heat Miser and the Freeze Miser fighting it out and sang along with every word of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. At times I was nervous to admit that I liked those songs, those shows, the lights and the trees. The traditions of Christmas are that of family, joy, gratefulness and spirit...what’s not to like. So why is it that we were raised to almost feel like we were “cheating” on Chanukah if we watched, sang and enjoyed the spirit of the holidays.
I was reading an article from and a former colleague of mine - Anita Silvert - in the JUF news that struck me and helped me think about this delicate balance. Her article entitled “Assimilate or Acculturate” shares the story of Joseph in Egypt and the perceptions of life as he becomes a member of the Egyptian world. So what exactly is the difference between these two words - Assimilate is to adopt, to take in and to make something one’s own - when a minority culture becomes one with the dominant culture they are within. Acculturate is to take on the cultural traits of another - when a minority culture takes on the traits of the dominant culture. As we look at the ever changing needs of our Jewish Community we will need to again find a delicate balance to figure out how we can acculturate with our modern community without necessarily assimilating. Throughout Jewish history our people have found themselves as strangers in a strange land and the Rabbis and teachers, from Talmudic times til now, have ensured that Jewish life continues to develop through a commitment to tradition and an always evolving interpretation of text. The Jews of the first Chanukah - the Maccabees didn’t live in isolation and neither do we so the need to acculturate and hold onto tradition is as relevant now as it was centuries ago. The traditions of lighting the candles, sharing gelt (coins), telling the story of the Chanukah miracle, eating traditional foods and bringing family together “gives us a way to adapt, adopt, grow and evolve. Without that ability Jews would have died out as just another ancient sect” says Silvert. I love this quote - I see it as a road map to a future of Jewish Community that welcomes new thought, new ideas that can be grounded in our traditions. I see us building a Jewish future that doesn’t abandon the past to assimilate with the now, but rather is building a future that is founded on the traditions that can acculturate to a new NOW and a new tomorrow.
As we settle down to light the candles, spin the dreidel, dip our latkes (potato pancakes) in some apple sauce (I’m not a sour cream guy) and add in any new traditions that may be meaningful your family I hope that this season brings you joy, ruach (spirit) and blessings. May all our houses be as bright as the shamash (helper candle) and may we all see a little more peace this year!
Chag Sameach-Happy Holiday.
Mark Shapiro is President and CEO of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center (JCC), a multi-million dollar, non-profit social services agency serving Southeastern Wisconsin. In this role, Shapiro leads a team of over 250 professionals in a Jewish setting, with institutional expertise in wellness, education, cultural programming, and camping services. As President and CEO, Shapiro works alongside the Board of Directors to develop the vision and strategy to ensure mission, membership, and financial success.
Shapiro joined the JCC in 2005 as Associate Executive Director, where he directly managed the operations and success of many of the agency’s core businesses – including health, recreation & fitness, early childhood education, adult and youth services, and camping (resident overnight and summer day camp.) He was named Executive Director in 2009, and named to his current position in 2014. Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Shapiro studied Psychology at Indiana University.
An active community leader and participant, Shapiro has served on the campaign team for the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and currently serves on the campaign cabinet for the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County. He is a member of the board of directors for JCC Association of North America, a co-chair for JCCA’s 2018 Biennial conference, and is a member of the MKE United steering committee. A Bayside resident, Shapiro is married to his camp sweetheart, Sharon, and together they are the proudest parents of Carli and Sophie.