Who needs Chinese food?

Who needs Chinese food?

Children create art with saladspinners during a day of activities at the Bergen YJCC.

You have to admit. Christmas lights are pleasing to the eye, and some of that music is glorious.

Still, it’s not ours – and it is possible (inevitable?) to feel just a bit marginalized on Christmas Day.

But this year, scanning the Internet – and, of course, the Jewish Standard – for non-Christmas-related activities on December 25, I was particularly pleased to find a perfect diversion for my visiting grandchildren.

Thanks to the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township, Jewish families, adults as well as children, had an opportunity to gather, play, dance, and watch Israeli films – all at no cost.

“Our senior team gets together periodically to discuss what we can do that’s new and unique,” the YJCC’s CEO, Gary Lipman, said. “Looking at it collectively – but putting it through the filter of our own experiences – we asked, why not do something big for the Jewish community on Christmas?”

The resulting event – a daylong simulated visit to the State of Israel – ultimately drew some 500 participants.

“Making the day a trip to Israel happened organically,” Mr. Lipman said. “That’s what happens when you turn creative people loose,” he joked, suggesting that the fact that he was “out of the way” on vacation the week before the event might have helped make it a success.

While Mr. Lipman insisted that you can’t credit one person for the positive outcome, he did note that all programs were coordinated by Anette McGarity, the YJCC’s associate executive director of program services.

He said that the day was advertised in local newspapers, through social media, and by word of mouth.

“But while we knew some people would come, we had no clue” about the final turnout, he said, describing it as “amazing.”

The day, extending from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., involved all YJCC departments, each offering age-appropriate activities. Guests were welcomed with “passports” that could be stamped throughout the day at different activity stations. Those visitors with four or more stamps received a prize. (My 6-year-old grandson got a water bottle before he even started, and ended the day with a lightstick imprinted with Jewish stars.)

Parents and children found much to occupy them throughout the day. That was a relief to many of them. Sharon Goldrich, a JCC teacher visiting from Maryland (and, OK, my daughter-in-law), noted that on a day associated in the national consciousness with family and community, “it was amazing to have that sentiment embraced by the YJCC, which offered a wonderful, family-friendly program.

“Though my family does not live in the area and are not regulars to the center, we were warmly welcomed and were thrilled that our children had a fun-filled afternoon.”

Her son Micah clearly agreed, taking advantage of all the activities and concluding that “it was really fun. I was happy to be there.”

Older visitors had fun as well.

Linda Gould of Paramus – who said she met several friends at activities there throughout the day – spent about three hours at the YJCC, cutting the day short only because she had other engagements. She learned about it through the listing in the Jewish Standard, she said.

“It was special,” Ms. Gould said. “I usually volunteer at a Hackensack nursing home on Christmas, but this caught my eye.” That was not entirely surprising, because it was the only such event she saw advertised.

Ms. Gould said she attended the day’s screening of two Israeli films, which she called “excellent. I didn’t expect them to be so entertaining. And someone was there to discuss them afterward.” She also took part in an Israeli dance class, which included young families with small children.

“Some parents brought their children,” she said. “They were trying to keep up – it was adorable,” she said.

In summation, “this was a very good idea,” she said. “They should expand on it.”

And they will, Mr. Lipman said. In fact, halfway through the day, “four of us gathered in the hall and said we have to do this next year – and every year after that. We also plan to do something on Easter Sunday.”

In keeping with the Israel theme, the gym was decked out as Masada, with an inflatable slide/fortress drawing steady streams of children and an obstacle course/desert providing entertainment for others. Those with more of an artistic bent could enjoy sand art, meant to remind us all on a cold winter’s day that we could be lying on the warm beaches of the Jewish state; or jewelry making, for those who prefer rainbow loom bracelets to red strings.

The more hands-on types had an opportunity to scoop up black mud (think Dead Sea) or plant seeds in paper cups (no explanation necessary).

The PJ Library sponsored a special morning presentation by mainstages, an educational theater company for children, which is developing a set of programs for the PJ Library Storybook Theater.

According to Linda Ripps, the PJ Library coordinator, the works “involve puppetry and imagination, and offer the children in attendance a chance to participate in the program.”

She noted that mainstages has been engaged for three more performances this year. The next one will be offered on Sunday, January 19, at Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge. It will be centered on Tu Bi-Sh’vat.

The December 25 YJCC event was nothing if not consistent. Guests were offered an opportunity to write prayers for the Kotel, participate in a Maccabi-style track run, and enjoy Israeli foods in the café and Israeli candy bars in the hall.

“Just like in Williamsburg, Va., where the actors never come out of their colonial character – for example, you can’t make Thomas Jefferson laugh – we decided that once something was in [the program], it had to have an Israeli theme,” Mr. Lipman said.

Subsidized by the YJCC, and with support from a few individual donors, the day was free to the entire community, “so that everyone who wanted a place to be on December 25 had a place to come, in a Jewish environment, without spending a dime,” he continued.

“We all remember our childhood and know the struggle of being absorbed in the Christmas season,” Mr. Lipman concluded. “But at the end of the day, it can be lonely for Jews to be expected to share in the merriment of the season.

“Why not have someplace in the Jewish community where Jews can come and not feel left out, where we can learn about Jewish issues – a place where we can go and be pridefully Jewish, not getting lost in everything else. It gives families a place where they can spend several hours – and they can still go out for Chinese food and a movie later if they want.”

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