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The rabbi’s Christmas

NEW YORK (JTA) — For the past 25 years on Passover, my wife and I have hosted a first night Seder for our friends.

While the main attraction is often my spouse’s remarkable talents in the kitchen, for us it is about sharing the deep meaning of this festival with friends –- many of whom are not Jewish.

Our hope each year is to make the festival meaningful for others as it is for us, while permitting guests to bring their own special gifts and make beautiful contributions to our celebration. Each year we learn as much as we teach, and we expand our understanding of other religious traditions, as we get to teach about our own faith and share our joy at our festival of freedom.

While year in and year out we gain new friends at the table and miss the company of others, there are certain regulars without whom we could no longer imagine our first night seders. Chief among them are the Christian family that lives next door.

The parents moved here from Germany about 20 years ago, and with them are four children, two of whom are close in age to two of our three. The relationship has grown so close that we removed the fence that divided our backyards.

While they share Passover and Chanukah with us, we share Christmas with them.

Each year, we look forward to joining with them in their home at Christmas, to witness how meaningful the moment is for them. And each year they open the doors to their home for a marvelous array of German baked goods and traditional foods. We love to see their joy and help them celebrate a profound event in their lives.

This year, there was a particular challenge. At the last minute, our neighbors — like us, the owners of an old brownstone — discovered that work had to be done and they would be unable to open their home as usual. When she heard this, my wife immediately offered our home.

But, I thought, “How can a rabbi host a Christmas party?”

While they were reticent to take us up on the offer, I explained that we really meant it. And if it was a Christmas celebration, it was their celebration — just temporarily in our house. I looked forward to helping our friends continue their tradition and making their holiday available to them in the way they want to celebrate.

They do the same for me every Passover. Part of the preparation each year for our annual Passover celebration requires that we rid our house of all “chametz,” leavened products that are banned during the holiday. Many of the foods that contain chametz we bring to local food pantries. But some of it cannot be just thrown out, so we box it up and sell it to our next-door neighbors. At the end of Passover, I buy it back (at a profit) and donate some money to charity. I then clean my house and, just before Passover, I recite a prayer that says if there is anything accidentally left behind it is not mine, but theirs.

On Christmas, my entire house was theirs.

We are remarkably lucky to live in this time and this place. Our America is a place in which the ideals of pluralism can be made real. We are not talking about tolerance, the ability to “put up” with differences, but sharing reasons to celebrate our differences.

The late Pope John Paul II taught his adherents that the only way for a Christian to understand him or herself was to read the Hebrew Bible in its own context. I have often had the pleasure and honor of team-teaching with a dear friend who is a Catholic scholar and priest. I have always said that we Jews need to be able to read the synoptic gospels in order to understand the questions that challenged the early Christians.

For Jews, the questions are the same questions that the rabbis wrestled with. The answers are different, but one must first understand those questions. We need the other to understand ourselves.

We live in a time in which we no longer need to feel the threat of forced conversion or the demands to be “like everyone else." Those of mature faith can feel secure in dialogue, and come away with the gifts of understanding what we all share, and learn to celebrate what makes us unique. For that, I am extremely grateful, and we are all very lucky.

Postscript: When Christmas was over, and everything was cleaned and put away, we set our table for a well-deserved Shabbat.

The author is the vice president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and the rabbi of Congregation Da’at Elohim in Manhattan.

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