Xmas Shabbat Grounds Some Merry Mitzvahs


Consider this year’s fluke on the December Dilemma: Christmas Day usually occurs during the workweek, with Jews often handling this day off by filling Dec. 25 with some volunteer work — then Chinese food and a movie.

But the quirks of the calendar find this Dec. 24 falling on a Friday, meaning Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are in a rare calendar co-existence with Shabbat.

“It falls on Shabbat; it’s Friday night,” said Leslie Klieger, who as director of Sinai Temple’s young adult leadership group, ATID, coordinated 105 volunteers for a Mitzvah Day last Dec. 25, which fell on a Thursday.

So Sinai’s ATID volunteers will be praying in shul instead of cleaning Santa Monica beaches, playing with abandoned Beverly Hills dogs or feeding Skid Row’s poor.

Any volunteer work this year, Klieger said, “would involve breaking Shabbat. The fact that it falls on a Saturday, it’s more like any other Saturday for Jews, whereas when it’s in the middle of the week, it’s a free day off from work.”

The coinciding of Shabbat and Christmas doesn’t strike some Jews as a problem.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” said Eric Greene, a young Jewish professional and Progressive Jewish Alliance vice president. “Sometimes I have friends in from out of town, but there’s no sense of a Christmas ritual. There’s nothing so regular with me.”

Conservative Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, usually spends Christmas Day helping feed the poor at Pasadena’s Union Station. It’s a Jewish volunteer hot spot each Dec. 25 but probably not as much this year.

“For Jews who appreciate Shabbat, there’s a beautiful set of customs and rituals to keep you quite busy that day,” Diamond said. “I think it’s beautiful when Christmas and Shabbat coincide. I would gladly trade all the High Holiday crowds for equally impressive crowds each week on Shabbat.”

“The challenge is for many of us who like to do tikkun olam [heal the world] projects,” Diamond said. “It’s a challenge because it’s Shabbat. But before or after Shabbat, there are mitzvah opportunities, and you have 364 days to do that, as well.”

Diamond said that this year’s unusual December Dilemma should be seen as a time “to pause to reflect and observe the beauty of Shabbat, our special day, our holiest day. Jewish people are more comfortable with the rhythms of Jewish life — people like that tend not to feel lonely or bereft of a holiday when it comes to Christmas.”

While Conservative and Orthodox synagogues must eschew mitzvah volunteering on Shabbat, Reform shuls can honor their denomination’s Shabbat rules and engage in Christmas Day altruism.

Temple Israel of Hollywood is running an 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Christmas Day dinner project at nearby Hollywood United Methodist Church (the church on Highland Avenue is highly visible due to its large red AIDS ribbons). Temple Israel volunteers will feed about 1,700 poor and also distribute free health-care products and toys for children.

“We’ve been doing this for quite some time,” said Donna Sivan Bishri, the shul’s program director. “It’s a Temple Israel event. We serve a meal throughout the day. We get about 200 volunteers from the temple, and we get an additional 250 volunteers from elsewhere. People have just come to rely on it.”

Northridge’s Temple Ahavat Shalom will see some of its congregants take part in a Dec. 25 food drive and clean-up project in Pasadena, while Reform Rabbi Karen Deitsch will make reference to Christmas Eve in her Dec. 24 erev Shabbat sermon.

“You have to take into consideration what the greater society is doing that day,” Deitsch said. “We don’t live in a vacuum.”

For the less synagogue inclined, there will be Jewish singles social events around Christmas, such as Stu & Lew Productions’ annual Christmas Eve “Schmooz-a-Palooza” at the House of Blues. Further down the Sunset Strip, The Laugh Factory will have a free Christmas Day afternoon dinner.

Last Christmas, the Skirball Cultural Center saw about 1,000 people attend its Dec. 25 screening of the family film, “Babe.” This year’s Skirball Christmas Day afternoon film is “Back to the Future.” At 8 p.m. on Christmas Day, Skirball will host a concert starring Theodore Bikel, capping off Skirball’s weeklong Yiddish culture and language series.

On Shabbat/Christmas Eve, public TV station KCET will present a live, 3-9 p.m. holiday concert, partly hosted by two Jewish celebrities, actor-producer Henry Winkler and comedienne Elayne Boosler. The Music Center lineup includes the group, Hollywood Klezmer, and Israel’s Yuval Ron Ensemble.

Despite this year’s Shabbat/Christmas calendar clash, is there room on Dec. 25 for American Judaism’s tradition of Christmas Day Chinese food?

“Do Shabbat,” Diamond said, “and then if you would like to observe your typical Dec. 25 rituals, enjoy a kosher Chinese dinner in the evening, followed by a movie.”