Sunday, November 25, 2012

Jews and Christmas Trees?

By Vicki Polin
The Examiner - November 25, 2012

For those not familiar with the Jewish faith, Christmas is NOT a Jewish Holiday, nor a holiday celebrated by the vast majority of Jews. Over the years with the increase of assimilation and the fact that Christmas has been promoted as a secular holiday, many non-practicing Jews and individuals from many non-Christian faiths have been integrating the holiday into their families traditions.
Recently I started asking online the question, “Do you think it is OKAY for people who are Jewish to have a Christmas tree in their home?" I was astounded by the whole array of emotionally filled responses I received from individuals from within every movement of Judaism. –– From those who consider themselves to be orthodox through individuals who are unaffiliated.
For many who responded when thinking about Jews celebrating Christmas –– let alone having a Christmas tree in their homes, brought back memories of those who were murdered by Nazis –– and throughout the history of the Jewish people.
Susie Cohen” of Skokie, IL said: “For centuries Jews have been displaced, raped, tortured and killed for holding onto their culture, religion and belief system.”
Another common theme in responses was that while growing up parents decided to bring a Christmas tree into their homes because they didn’t want their children growing up feeling like they were missing out on something. At the same time individuals from within the same demographics (those from rural communities and also large cities), stated: “Their parents would haved drempt of bring a Christmas tree into their homes because they didn’t want their children to loose sight of what it meant to be a Jew.”
It was also interesting to hear from a group of people who answered the question by saying: “we spend far too much time worrying about what other Jews do in their homes and not enough about how we do Jewish in our own.”
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who is the spiritual leader at Anshe Sholom Bnai Israel Congregation in Chicago, stated that “a Christmas tree is a Christian symbol and, to my understanding, brings a powerful Christian atmosphere to any home that has one. Any Jewish home contemplating having a Christmas tree should be honest about how powerful this symbol is and whether they want the Judaism in their home - which might be quite subtle at times - to be overpowered by such a strong Christian symbol.”
Chicago Resident, David Blatt who considers himself to be an orthodox Jew says: “Why not? Asian-Americans, who are often Buddhists like my Japanese-American friend John, has had one for years. American Jews, sadly have a strong anti-Christian bias but let's be honest: Who of these two did a greater transgression: –– Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who was busy molesting girls for years in the name of Torah -–– or Mr B, a 50 something single guy, who just put up a small Christmas tree in his studio high rise apartment?”
Los Angeles native, Alex Asher Sears, shared that she “grew up in a mixed faith home with a Jewish foundation but joy in celebrating the rituals my non-Jewish family had, too. We had a tree from the time I was about 10.
I also grew up learning that the tree was about the Solstice and that the fact that these holidays occur around the same time of year was to understand that religions probably have more in common than less.
I grew up understanding that all of these holidays in the way we celebrate them with gifts was NOT a religious thing. This is a time of year for reflection, celebration and doing for others.
What was more important was that “I learned to love the family gatherings that took place round the menorah and also around the tree. Both were important because they were our families rituals. We gave them the meaning we wanted them to have.
If I marry a man who said no tree, I wouldn't be OK with it, because the tree ties me to the rituals of my family. For me having a Christmas tree means that when my grandmother talks about Christmas morning as a little girl I can understand just as I do when my Bubby tells me stories of Passover when she was a child. And I think they each got great joy being able to celebrate those aspects of their childhoods with their grandchildren and vice versa.
A few personal friends who converted to Judaism, stated that they couldn’t imagine bringing a tree into their homes, especially for them the tree represented the faith they walked away from."
New York psychologist, Michael J. Salamon stated: “I was raised to believe that a tree represents a holiday that we cannot follow. Perhaps it is because my father, as a Holocaust survivor, saw Nazism as deeply rooted in Catholic anti-Semitism and therefore, symbols of Catholicism were just not acceptable.”
TammySue Margalit, who grew up in Skokie responded by saying: “HELL NO, not in my house, but I will not tell someone else what to do.”
Rabbi Zev Shandalov, a Chicago native who now resides in Israel believes that “the Christmas tree is one of the most well-known representations of the celebration of the Christian holiday. By introducing that symbol into one's JEWISH home, one is in fact taking another step towards assimilation. A Christian is free to practice his or her religion as seen fit. However, it must be realized that it is indeed THEIR religion and not ours. Bringing a Christmas tree into the home negates one's Judaism and Jewish roots.
Additionally, our religion is so rich and full of beauty and wonders! The Menorah is such an awesome symbol--one of light in dark times, faith in G-d and brings families together in warmth and love. Why does one feel a sense of lacking in all that we have that he need bring in foreign symbols? Our religion lacks nothing.”
Marcia Cohn Spiegel, a long time activist for Jewish women’s civil rights believes that “it depends on the situation. I would find it disturbing in my house, but in interfaith marriages it honors the customs of one partner (if that partner also honors Jewish customs).”
Danny Shaffer of Highland Park, IL responded by saying: “The truth is I frickin' LOVE christmas! I get the tree with my boys..we listen to christmas music while we decorate it, put gifts under the tree..cookies for santa.. watch all the christmas movies..the whole nine's a great AMERICAN holiday and as you know –– I’m seriously Jewish.”
Shoshana Martyniak said: “My husband isn't Jewish, and one of the things that I said when we were first dating was that if we were going to continue to date, he had to give up christmas and the tree. I wanted a Jewish home and part of that Jewish home is creating a safe space where you can be free in your Jewishness. I realize that much of secular non-Jewish America, including the giant gentiles families –– see nothing religious about Christmas.
As a Jew, no matter how pretty the lights are, no matter how good the tree smells, it is still a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ-- a man who is not our messiah, who, to us, is not the son of G-d, nor a part of our story at all. So, why would Jews celebrate his birthday? Especially in our own homes?
Over the years, I've made the concession that if we are in Wisconsin, we will visit my in-laws on Christmas. There are rules: 1) No Christmas presents for my children 2) An understanding that we are VISITING them and my children are sharing their holiday, just as when we invite non-Jewish friends to passover, but it is not our holiday, it’s not in my houses.
And yes, I do judge when it comes to this. I do think it's confusing. Children have enough Christianity thrown at them during this time-- their houses should be safe. There needs to be a line.”
Rabbi David Gruber, a native of Evanston, IL –– stated that “like most things in life, a one size fits all approach is seldom helpful. A Christmas Tree is not something that has meaning for me, personally. It would, therefore, not serve any constructive function in my home. However, there may be families, where this may have personal meaning. I see no harm in those families having a tree.”
Sara Hawkins said that "for many years I put up a Christmas tree. My best friend and college roommate celebrated Christmas so we decorated for both Hanukkah and Christmas. Life went on, we graduated, moved away and then eventually ended up in the same city, she in her apartment, my husband and I in our house.
Since we had the larger place we'd invite my best friend to come over (and others who would be alone) on Christmas.
One year I decided to put up a tree for her on Christmas Eve so she'd have a familiar experience. It wasn't about me or my beliefs. I did that for about 10 years and many of my Jewish friends thought it was great while others chided me for being a horrible person for bringing a Christian relic into my home.
What I do in my home in a loving appreciation of my friends and family is not for anyone to judge me negatively, but people will (and do).
Do I think Jewish people should put up a Christmas tree? Sure, if that makes them feel happy and joyful and good. Christmas trees aren't even of Christian origin, they're Egyptian (from what I learned). The original question of "Is it OK..." already sets this up as a good/not good discussion. Of course it's OK for Jews to put a Christmas tree in their home, as much as it is OK for me to put a fountain, crystals or coins to enhance my home's Feng Shui.
Shalom bayit (peace in the home) is something I subscribe to, and anything that should brings peace, love and joy into a home should is more important than being judged by outsiders."
Rebbitzen Nechama Eilfort, who teaches at the Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach, CA shared: “The xmas tree has never been considered a symbol of peace. If anything it represented a connection to German culture as the 'modern' custom of decorating a tree at home started in Germany.
It is clearly not 'fine' to have an xmas tree or fir wreaths for Jews. The star at the top represents the star of Bethlehem that appeared on the eve of the birth of the xtian god. There are many suggestions that the use of the tree has pagan origins in which case it falls under the 'asheira' prohibition.
Use by Jews suggests a desire to assimilate and appear no different from the surrounding nations. This is the antitheses of Judaism. It is the role of a Jew to be a light among the Nations. To stand out, not to blend in.
When faced with the type of anti semitism we are faced with today it is important to react by being proud, visible, religiously active Jews.”
Rabbi Ze’ev Smason, who is the spiritual leader of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion (St. Louis, MO), shared his thoughts on the topic, stating that “any knowledgeable Christian would object to the suggestion that a Christmas tree has no Christian religious meaning, just as a knowledgeable Jew would object to the suggestion that the menorah or Star of David are secular symbols. However, we need go no further than to look at the word 'Christmas' of 'Christmas tree' to see the tree's connection to Christian belief. Regarding the question, "Is it OK for Jews to have a Christmas tree in their home?", the answer is an unequivocal "No."
Judaism contains a richness and depth with its 613 mitzvos (commandments) that enables every Jew the opportunity to connect with the Almighty, our fellow man, one's Jewish identity, and universal and spiritual truths. When Judaism is transmitted in a meaningful, relevant fashion, it becomes obvious that our laws and traditions contain within them the opportunity to fulfill and satisfy our spiritual yearnings. To any Jew who feels the inclination to turn to non-Jewish religious symbols such as the Christmas tree for spiritual fulfillment, I say: "Check out your own heritage first."
Sara Atkins of Wynnewood, PA, believes that “people should actually learn about Hanukkah –– not the story they tell about the oil but the real story, but about the struggle and why we (Maccabees) fought and won. Maybe if people REALLY understood Hanukkah they wouldn't be running so quickly to put up a tree. Or what the military victory, was really about. Hanukkah is celebrating the victory of yet another group trying to assimilate us –– and getting us to shed Judaism –– but it didn’t work, we fought and we won. Hanukkah is basically a big old celebration of stopping assimilation.”
For me (Vicki Polin), I did not grow up with any formal Jewish education, nor were my parents or grandparents holocaust survivors. My parents would never allowed a Christmas tree in our home. When I was younger, my sisters and I would go over to a neighbors home to decorate their tree. I personally remember feeling out of place doing so. I remember my father explaining to us that Jews are not christian, nor do we celebrate christian holidays such as Christmas –– for that reason, we do not have a Christmas tree. My mother then went on and reminded us about the holocaust –– and how people hated us [Jews] because our belief system was different. My mother continued by reminding us of the number of innocent people, including Jews who perished in the holocaust –– and that in honor of their memory we do NOT practice another faith, nor bring icons or symbolism's of the other faiths into our home.
The topic of not having Christmas trees in our home was one of the many family traditions my parents passed down to the next generation –– along with the importance of understanding and accepting cultural differences amongst our friends. Even though we never had any real formal Jewish education, my parents wanted my sisters and to be proud of our ethnicity and faith.
I personally would never bring a Christmas tree, nor anything representative of another faith into my home. Yet I do believe since one of the major premises of Judaism is the fact that we all have free will, I personally believe it has to be an individual decision to choose what is best for each individual family’s situation and home.

END NOTE: According to Rebbitzen Eilfort an asherah was a tree that represented fertility and goddess worship. That it was an evergreen tree (ie one that didn't die in the winter) would make sense.

There is a Biblical prohibition as well as a positive commandment to not set up and to cut down any trees that represent asherah worship.
Many pagan tribes had a great fear of winter and death (see Beowulf) and created rituals to calm those fears, such as placing evergreen wreaths at doorways etc.

Deuteronomy 16:21 states that Hashem hated Asherim whether rendered as poles— "Do not set up any [wooden] Asherah [pole] beside the altar you build to the Lord your God"— or as living trees— "You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the Lord your God which you shall make". That Asherahs were not always living trees is shown in 1 Kings 14:23: "their asherim , beside every luxuriant tree". Exodus 34:13 states: "Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles."

Suggested Films:

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The right to heal from child sexual abuse

by Vicki Polin

Examiner - November 29, 2012

One of the most important aspects of helping a sex crime survivor heal is to encourage them to find ways to feel empowered. This is a critical step because during the crime(s) committed against the survivor, choice was taken away from them. By allowing a survivor to choose what happens to them after the assault and encouraging them to trust their own judgement and make decisions, an individual who was a victim of a sex crime can begin to regain a sense of self. It is for this reason that it is vitally important for someone working with survivors to stay unbiased, neutral and non-manipulative when it comes to survivors choosing NOT to file police reports or having their cases prosecuted.

Over the last few years various individuals have been acting on their own, or created their own organizations, declared that they were experts and knew how to advocate for survivors –– and solve the problem of sex crimes in the chasidic world in Brooklyn. It appears that it has become standard policy to manipulate survivors into making police reports or having the survivor blackmail their offenders into making cash payments to them to avoid potential prosecution.

The mindset of these untrained advocates has been that unless a survivor makes a police reports and have the offenders prosecuted whenever possible, even if it goes against the wish of the survivor -- the survivor can not heal. What ends up happening is that the crime victim ends up feeling re-victimized which may lead to an increase of instances of self-harm, a few suicide attempts and even death.

When asked if survivors should press charges against their offenders? and, If so, when? Psychologist Jim Hopper, who is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School, replied: “It depends on so many factors. What if any relationship does the person who was abused have with the perpetrator now?” “And what about relationships of the abused person's family members and other significant people with the perpetrator, and what if any influence does the perpetrator have in the community?”

The number one concern needs to be to help the survivor heal and make sure they have a strong support system in place, prior to making a police report –– if that’s what they choose to do.

“Because statutes of limitations can differ across states and countries, it's critical to know how long the person has to decide whether or not to press charges.”

“The person may need helping sorting out what they are hoping to achieve [by a licensed mental health professional who specializes in sexual abuse/assault], which may include holding to account, revenge, protecting others -- and it's always a mix of motives. It's also important to take an inventory of the resources one can bring to what could be a long and very difficult process. Internal resources include realistic expectations about he process and outcomes, and one's capacity to deal with major disappointments. External resources include money, competent attorneys, and support from family and friends.”
“Finally," says Hopper, "people should be cautioned that once they go the legal route and involve attorneys (who have a financial motive, even if they also have a strong motive to seek justice), then other potential avenues of healing and justice involving the perpetrator will most likely get shut down, permanently. This may be most important for those whose perpetrators are family members.”

Polly Poskin, who has been the executive director of ICASA (Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault) for just over 31 years, and who has authored numerous laws in Illinois, shared her thoughts on this topic:

"It should always be the survivor's choice whether to request that criminal charges be filed against her or his perpetrator. If a survivor chooses to request charges be filed, it is best for the investigation that she or he report sooner than later, but that is often impossible for a victim of child sexual abuse. The perpetrator may be a family member or a friend of the family, or a teacher or her spiritual leader. How would a child challenge such authority? How would a child find his or her own way to a prosecutor's office? Thanks to victim advocates who have gone through the forty hour training and educated policy makers, laws have changed to accommodate the barriers faced by survivors of child sexual abuse. For instance, in Illinois, a survivor of child sexual abuse can request that criminal charges be brought against her perpetrator up to 20 years past the age of majority (20 years of age).

This law recognizes that a child may have to grow into adulthood before she has the physical independence and emotional strength to seek justice for the heinous abuse perpetrated against her as an innocent, dependent child. All survivors have remarkable resilience and awesome courage. They may need supportive loved ones and/or victim advocates to help push open the doors of a once reluctant criminal justice system. We all have an obligation to create access where once denied and promote justice when so well deserved." 

The key words in both Hopper’s and Poskin’s responses were that survivors need to be given the choice. Yes, it is important to inform the survivor of all legal remedies available to them, yet victim advocates MUST provide survivors of these options from a nonjudgmental, unbiased perspective.

One of the most important aspects of working with survivors of sex crimes or any form of child abuse is to follow the survivors own agenda. A trained victims advocate will learn how to separate out what they personally want a survivor to do, from what the needs and wants of the individual they are trying help needs and wants to do.
Unfortunately, this is not what always happens with untrained, self-proclaimed victim advocates. There has been case after case in which self-proclaimed advocates have jumped on the bandwagon and inadvertently pressure survivors to follow an agenda that is not in the best interest of the individual survivor.

New York Psychologist, researcher and author, Michael J. Salamon reiterated the views of Dr. Hopper when he stated: “Every survivor comes with their own history and pain. Some survivors are more resilient, others more motivated. The question can and should be answered by each individual survivor after they have explored the benefits and costs to them in their own therapy.”
Attorney Timothy J. Conlon who’s law office is in Providence, Rhode Island shares the views of therapists in stating: “The most difficult cases are those in which no other victims have come forward. Being the first is hard. That said, more often than not even the first finds they are the first of many to come forward, once they find the strength. I suggest having the support of your therapist in making the decision that you are strong enough to hold the perp accountable, and when you are, to do so.”

Author/Psychologist, Mic Hunter shared “I counsel clients that the legal process criminal and civil are very stressful. If going through the courts empowers the client then I am all for it. But if the stress of the court system puts the client at serious risk of suicide or other serious problems then I don't think it is worth that. Also I ask the survivor what he or she hope to get from court proceedings. Inhale found that even some of those who get a settlement from a civil case, or see their perpetrator go to prison are still left dis-satisfied because they wanted the offender to say he or she is sorry, but that doesn't happen.”

Social worker, Jim Austin of Peterborough, Ontario Canada who specializes in working with adult survivors of child sexual abuse, believes that a survivor should only utilize the legal system “when and if they [survivors of child sexual abuse] have the strength to speak their truth. If a Survivor chooses to proceed, they should be sure to have a support network in place. It's going to be a bumpy ride.”

If you are a survivor of a sex crime and live in Brooklyn or any place else, it is imperative that if someone calls themselves an advocate and wants to work with you, be sure this individual is trained and connected to a legitimate rape crisis center affiliated with your states coalition against sexual assault. It is the only way you can be sure that the “advocate” has gone through the proper training program and is being supervised by a trained professional.

If you are a crime victim and feel as if someone is trying to manipulate you or is suggesting that you on your own blackmail your offender into financially compensating you in exchange for not reporting the crime to the police, it is important to report these incidents to your local states attorney’s office. It is important to know that any form of manipulating a crime victim can also be seen as a form of witness tampering, which is a crime and depending on the circumstances the defendant could face jail time. As a survivor you have a right to decide for yourself if and when you make a police report -- let alone have your offender prosecuted. You have a right to heal in what ever manor works best for you.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Yizkor Prayer for those who were abused as children

A Yizkor Meditation in Memory of a Parent Who Was Hurt
By Rabbi Robert Sax
Mahzor Lev Shalem - For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
Published by The Rabbinical Assembly

Dear God,

You know my heart. 
Indeed, You know me better than I know myself, so I turn to You before I rise for Kaddish. 
My emotions swirl as I say this prayer. The parent I remember was not kind to me. His/her death left me with a legacy of unhealed wounds, of anger and of dismay that a parent could hurt a child as I was hurt. 
I do not want to pretend to love, or to grief that I do not feel, but I do want to do what is right as a Jew and as a child.
Help me, O God, to subdue my bitter emotions that do me no good, and to find that place in myself where happier memories may lie hidden, and where grief for all that could have been, all that should have been, may be calmed by forgiveness, or at least soothed by the passage of time. 
I pray that You, who raise up slaves to freedom, will liberate me from the oppression of my hurt and anger, and that You will lead me from this desert to Your holy place. —robert Saks