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In Israeli cities, Jews show an increase in interest in Christmas

28 Dec 2015 – By Judith Sudilovsky

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.”

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