Halloween Lessons

Halloween celebrations and trick-or-treating: just clean fun or forbidden anti-Jewish activities? Like most issues in the Jewish community, it depends on who you ask. And not surprisingly, a Jewish school’s stand on Halloween observance may not be shared by the students or their parents.

Dr. George Lebovitz, headmaster of Kadima Hebrew Academy, a Conservative day school in Woodland Hills, felt so strongly about the issue that he sent home a full-page description of the Jewish attitude toward Halloween, together with a photocopy of the World Book Encyclopedia entry detailing the origins of Halloween as an ancient sacrificial festival. The Druids lit huge bonfires and burned crops, animals and possibly humans as sacrifices. Eventually, the medieval church transformed Halloween into a Christian holiday.

Lebovitz prefaced his handout with the school’s policy, “Kadima does not demand or require any practices of you at home,” but went on to take a strong stand against Halloween observance, noting that the Torah warns us not to imitate religious practices of other people. “We want to teach our children to give and not take,” he emphasized.

Lebovitz concedes, however, that “a lot, though not most” of his students will be trick-or-treating this year. Richard Posalski, father of a fourth grader at Kadima, received the handout, but still plans to take his daughter trick-or-treating Saturday night. “It’s fun!” Posalski says with a smile.

“My kids go to shul pretty regularly and go trick-or-treating too. It could be thought of as inconsistent, but without giving up your Jewish identity, there are certain concessions you make living in a non-Jewish environment. I don’t think we’re being hypocritical, just inconsistent.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Ronald, director of education at Kol Tikvah, a Reform synagogue in Woodland Hills, says that his school doesn’t deal with Halloween at all, although he personally believes that “Halloween has no place in a Jewish setting.”

“Living in a secular society,” Ronald says, “I don’t think it’s the end of the world if kids do some trick-or-treating and dress up in costumes. I’d rather see them dress up on Purim. Our position is no position one way or the other.”

Over the hill at another Reform religious school — Temple Akiba in Culver City — Miriam Hamrell, director of religious education, initially takes a strong stand against Halloween celebration. “We don’t celebrate it at all here in school,” she says emphatically. She stresses that the school has no Halloween decorations and does not allow costumes. She says the school discourages trick-or-treating, noting that it has become a safety issue.

“But,” Hamrell says, “we let the children do whatever is their family tradition.” She pauses and adds, “You don’t want the child to feel out of place if everyone else is going. You don’t want a kid to feel like an oddball.” Hamrell assumes that most Temple Akiba children will be out in a costume on Halloween eve.

Rifke Lewis, a Temple Akiba parent, has a different take. “I am opposed to trick-or-treating because it’s insensitive, it is rude and it teaches wrong values,” Lewis says. “It says you have a right to demand a treat or else you will trick. You have a right to beg for what you don’t need. You have a right to interrupt people. When I had babies it was infuriating. They’d just about fall asleep, then the doorbell would ring.”

But even some of David Miller’s third- and fourth-grade students from the Orthodox Harkham Hebrew Hillel Academy in Beverly Hills will be out ringing doorbells after Shabbat ends Halloween eve. Miller notes that every year the school’s educational director, Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman, makes a statement condemning Halloween observance. Still a small percentage of students will go trick-or-treating, but will discard the non-kosher goodies.

Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy traditionally sponsors a movie night on Halloween, to provide a “kosher” and safe alternative to trick-or-treating. Miller believes that, especially because of the religious underpinnings on Halloween, Jews should treat it as just a night like any other. His kids stay home. When his elementary school-age son and daughter were asked if they minded not trick-or-treating, they answered with a resounding “No!”

But what happens in families where the children and parents are at odds over Halloween observances? Dr. Ron Wolfson, vice president and director of the Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life at the University of Judaism and author of “The Art of Jewish Living,” states that each family must make a decision about what to do and how to deal with the subject. He, for example, allows his children to trick-or-treat, though not on Shabbat.

Families, Wolfson states, are often called upon to negotiate the dual identities we have as Jews and as Americans. He says that if a family has little traditional observance at home, when the children are faced with Halloween or Christmas, the parents will lose the battle with the kids. “But if a home is filled with Shabbat every week, and Sukkot, and Simchat Torah, and Pesach, and Purim, and Chanukah, and you don’t allow your kids to go trick-or-treating, then they’re not so bereft.”

Kadima Hebrew Academy’s Dr. Lebovitz says that nixing Halloween celebrations can give parents the opportunity to address the issue of peer pressure and not going along with the crowd. However, the bottom line, Lebovitz feels, is being able to tell one’s children “No.”

“In many cases the children rule the home which shouldn’t be the case,” Lebovitz says. “[In the case of trick-or-treating] you’re going and demanding something, and if they don’t give you something, there are dire consequences. That’s not the Jewish way. In Judaism, anything that is tainted with religious practices from another religion we go out of our way to avoid. To say Halloween has no religious overtones is absurd. If a parent can’t say no to this, what are they going to say no to?”