When Sharon Williams and her family were deciding whether to move to the North Country a few years ago, she liked the idea of living near extended family, and being in a small, rural town. But she had some reservations.
"Of just being in a place where we were going
to be such a minority. And I knew my son
would probably be the only Jewish child in his grade."
Williams says there is only one other Jewish child in a class of 120. She says it can be really difficult, especially in December. A lot of homework assignments are about Santa Claus, which isn’t part of their family’s holiday tradition. "If you don’t celebrate Christmas, it can be kind of alienating. If I walk into my son’s elementary school, and there’s a Christmas tree and nothing else, as a Jewish parent, I don’t feel that welcomed there," she said.
Williams and the Potsdam synagogue want to take some small steps toward adding Jewish traditions and symbols into the North Country’s holiday season.
But concerns like hers have gotten caught up in the national culture wars. A school in Fort Worth, Texas recently tried to limit Santa Claus in the classrooms, saying it wasn’t appropriate for all children.
Fox News host Bill O’Reilly responded on his show. "So let me get this straight," he joked. "If an image of Santa Claus is seen on school property, some students might be depressed. Sure." O’Reilly said for 15 years he’s been “swatting away insane attempts to diminish the national holiday.”
John Stewart, host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, makes light of culture wars."Fox, you take for granted the ubiquity of Christmas, but if there has been a war, Christmas is the aggressor nation," he deadpanned."Right now, every public space in the nation looks like it got hit with a 500 pound tinsel bomb... tonight I’ve come humbly before you to declare war on Christmas."
In Potsdam, Sharon Williams wants it clear: this is not what she’s trying to do in the North Country. She doesn’t want to take away anything from Christmas. "I can understand if Christmas a really important time of year, especially for kids, and it makes people happy to see Christmas trees around, especially at a dark time of year, then by all means, light things up," she said.
Williams and others at the synagogue just want to add to the lights. They have started what they call a Menorah Fund. Their members are buying electric menorahs, and donating them to libraries, town halls, and other public places they visit.
The Menorah is a symbol of Hanukah, which is also known as the Jewish festival of lights. It looks like a candelabra – with one tall candlestick in the middle, and the eight shorter candlesticks, four on each side. Williams says she goes into her son’s school, to explain it to other children.
"We light a menorah which symbolizes a miracle that happened, because after the temple, the synagogue had been destroyed in historical times, when the Jews came to reclaim the temple and clean it up, they only had enough oil for one night, and the miracle was that it lasted for eight. So, the Hanukeah, or menorah, has eight branches, and then the helper branch is the taller one, or the one set apart, and that’s the one at home you use to light the others, and you light one for each of the eight nights of Hanukah."
Williams says the more menorahs people see, the more they will realize Christmas isn’t the only holiday at this time of year. Now that she and her family have lived in the North Country for a few years, Williams says many people here seem very interested in learning about other culture. She still has concerns that her son is one of only a few Jewish children in school. But she says her family has realized that raising the community’s awareness is one important reason for them to be here.