JERUSALEM (CNS) — On Christmas Eve, the entrance to the West Jerusalem YMCA was decked out in colorful lights against the night sky, and a Christmas tree sparkling with ornaments stood in the lobby. Jewish Israelis and international visitors, guests at the YMCA’s popular restaurant, stopped to take pictures in front of the tree.
Nearby, the YMCA’s auditorium was packed with mainly Jewish Israelis who had come to listen to a concert of Christmas music.
A group of secular rabbinical students from the center of the country who had come to experience Christmas in Jerusalem followed their guide through the building to hear about Christmas traditions. A little later, a smaller group of Jewish teen nature Scouts took a quick glimpse at the tree as they rushed to be on time the Christmas Mass at the nearby Italian Consulate.
“It is interesting to see different customs,” said 15-year-old Dvir Sagury of Jerusalem.
His friend, Harel Guttel, 15, said Israelis have some inkling about the Muslim Arabs living among them, but with Christians a tiny minority in Israel, there is very little opportunity to come in contact with their traditions.
“I’d like to see what (are) the traditions are of another religion, see the prayers,” he said.
The scene was a far cry from the one a few weeks earlier when a handful of members of the group, Lehava, led by Bentzi Gopstein, demonstrated against a Christmas bazaar held at the YMCA, calling it a “murder of Jewish souls.” They held signs demanding the “impure ones” to leave the country. In an op-ed piece in a religious newspaper, Gopstein later called Christians “blood-sucking vampires.”
From the West Jerusalem restaurant displaying a Christmas tree to Jewish children cajoling their parents to decorate at Christmastime, to groups like Lehava, Jewish Israelis are extremely divided when it comes to Christmas, said Father David Neuhaus, patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel.
“Israeli society is becoming more and more divided on every single issue, including this issue,” he said. “Some people are terrified of a kind of obscuring of the boundaries, and we have Rabbi Gopstein saying terrible things, which elicits a contrary reaction. We had a number of rabbis and Israeli Jews coming to Mass at our parishes and who are open (to seeing symbols and learning about Christmas).”
He said others are happy to embrace the outward trappings of the holidays with the tree and the decorations because they are pretty, but they are not very interested in learning about the significance of the holiday.
“What interests us more are the people who are open to learning about the other without losing their own identity,” he said. “I don’t know where this is going or who will have the upper hand, but there is a large majority (of people) who have good will or really don’t care. (But) in an atmosphere of fear, a lot of power is given to the marginal groups. If the right political leader came along, they would find a lot of support.”
Rabbi Sivan Maas, 57, who was heading the group of secular rabbis for the evening, said she felt there is increasing interest and acceptance of seeing the symbols of Christmas in public spaces. With their wide exposure now to Christmas on the Internet and in the media, Israelis like the feeling of being cosmopolitan and fashionable, she said. Many even like to travel abroad specifically at this time to see the decorations in their full glory and hit some of the Christmas sales.
“It is more the fun of (Christmas), not so much the message,” she said.
“I think it is a very beautiful holiday, and I think that as a country we don’t give enough room for the holidays of the other traditions that live here,” said Yuval Moran, 21, who accompanied her mother on the rabbi’s tour. Moran, from the almost completely Jewish city of Kfar Saba, she did not even know when Christmas was until two years ago.
“In mixed cities like Jerusalem and Haifa, people are more exposed to it. I didn’t know what the tree symbolized. It’s not that I am celebrating their holiday, I am joining them in their celebration,” she said.
Her mother, Galit Oren, 49, said that although she had always loved the decorations and lights of Christmas, she felt the need to delve deeper into the significance of the holiday.
“It’s important to know about the traditions of the people who live with us,” she said.
In their Jerusalem living room, Ella and Emily Bolton-Laor adjusted the lights on their small Christmas tree. It was the second year Ella, 15, spearheaded the Christmas decorating, including in her bedroom. A classmate is the daughter of a foreign worker from the Philippines and celebrates Christmas, so she and another friend decided to put up decorations in their own homes. Bolton-Laor’s father took her to Jerusalem’s Old City to buy Christmas ornaments.
“I like the way it looks with all the lights and smells, and it is my mom’s birthday. It’s winter time,” she said.
Emily, 11, said she first started getting interested in Christmas from YouTube, where families posted their Christmas videos.
“I wanted to see what kids really get for Christmas. It looked like kind of fun, and (the decorations) give me a feeling of having my family all around me,” she said. Her interest led her to doing a school project on the significance of Christmas two years ago.
Tamar Herman, 63, traveled to Jerusalem from the coastal town of Netanya over the Christmas weekend. She said attending the YMCA concerns was about making a statements against the increasing extremism she has noticed.
“I came here especially to hear the bells (at the end of the concert),” she said. “The whole world is becoming more fanatical, and I hope that in my own little radius, in my own way, I am doing something to counter that.”