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Christmas cards, carrier bags and understanding between faiths
Every year Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, from the Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, receives a Christmas card from the City Council. Receiving such a card, when a Chanukkah card could be seen as more appropriate, is viewed as “cultural insensitivity” by the Rabbi.
In a recent interview for the Community Pages, held in the cerebral surroundings of the Synagogue‘s library in Lansdowne Street, Rabbi Sarah went onto say that she thought the Council “could engage the brain” before sending a Christmas card to a Synagogue “particularly as there is an ‘equality and inclusion unit’” at Brighton and Hove City Council. Rabbi Sarah made a formal complaint to the unit last year regarding the annual Christmas card and said that “It would be a major revolution if we got a Chanukkah card.”
Although Mary Evans, Head of Equalities and Inclusion at Brighton and Hove City Council, did not respond directly to what Rabbi Sarah called “cultural insensitivity” in the sending of a Christmas card to a Rabbi, she did confirm that “the Mayor sent a card to Rabbi Sarah this year with a picture of the Royal Pavilion, seen through shrubbery under snow. The Mayor wrote the cards personally, and her salutation was ‘Season’s Greetings and good wishes’.”
While Rabbi Sarah, who is a member of the Brighton and Hove Interfaith Contact Group, said she was “very glad to finally receive 'seasonal greetings'", a Chanukkah card, in her view, was a “reasonable thing” to expect. Part of the reason why Rabbi Sarah feels “very sensitive at this time of the year” is down to the fact that “as a Jew that was born in this country and have lived in this country for nearly fifty-five years, I go to a shop and I cannot buy a Chanukkah card.”
During the same interview Charlotte Gravestock, who is a Christian and also the Secretary of Interfaith Contact Group, agreed that Rabbi Sarah was not being unreasonable and said that the Christmas card sent in previous years was “a bit of a faux pas” on behalf of the Council. Charlotte also thought that “they (the Council) have a list and they send their Christmas cards to that list and somebody isn’t looking where that card is going and not noticing that they’re sending it to a Synagogue.”
Charlotte went onto say that while she didn't think it was fair to "tar them all with the same brush" as such departments were doing “their best”, they could still at times have a “tick-box” mentality and that “they don’t have the interest in spiritual matters. They don’t really have a feeling for people’s deeply held beliefs and sensitivities.”
On a recent trip to a supermarket, Rabbi Sarah said that when she had left her re-usable bags in the car accidentally, the till operator offered her a carrier bag which happened to say "Merry Christmas" on it. Politely declining the offer, the Rabbi explained "if it said ‘Season’s Greetings’ on it, I will take it, but I‘m not taking something that says ‘Merry Christmas’." Although just a carrier bag, at the time its message represented something Rabbi Sarah saw as "culturally insensitive" and that she felt "very strongly" about that.
With many supermarkets nowadays catering for various different cultures and religions, Rabbi Sarah concluded that they should be able to find out quite easily roughly how many carrier bags they would need to produce that would say “Happy Chanukkah” or "Happy Christmas". Her rationale was that it should be a basic case of supply and demand and considering that “they do an analysis of all the other take-up of their goods. They buy things on the basis of their sales. They buy kosher food products, so they must work out how many people buy them.”
In Rabbi Sarah’s experience, one country seems to manage to balance things out a little more evenly. Referring to a trip to America she said “I went to New York at Pesach, Passover time and the greetings on the radio and everything were ‘Happy Passover / Happy Easter, Happy Easter / Happy Passover’. Great! Have some cultural awareness, say greetings for Divali when it’s Divali and Eid when it’s Eid. That would be fantastic!” The fact that we don’t seem to do things here in quite the same way, however, leaves her feeling “very alienated and very marginalised.”
When asked if she thought that this was part of a general reluctance to discuss religion in general and if it was a subject that some felt was untouchable, Rabbi Sarah said “There’s a lot of stuff going on around this kind of agenda. I think one of the issues being raised is simply a way of expressing people’s fear, mainly about Islam. It’s a covert way of talking about Islam and the fact that there are more Muslim faith schools and to say that Christianity is being marginalised. I can’t really comment on what it is to be a Christian, I can tell you what it is like as a Jew and that is that Judaism is very marginalised.” Rabbi Sarah went onto say that “Non-faith based schools and other schools do pay attention to other religious streams, but it is very, very minimal. Certainly in Brighton & Hove it’s very minimal. I can tell you the experiences of our young people who tend to be, if they are lucky, one of only two or three Jews in the whole school and how marginalised they feel and indeed how much anti-Semitic abuse they get. The three main terms of abuse in the playground are ‘gay, Arab and Jew.’”
As a Christian, Charlotte's view was that people do tend to “tread on eggshells” when it comes to religious matters, but that she has “never personally felt that I couldn’t say that I was a Christian or not display any Christian symbols.” Charlotte continued by saying that when it comes to people having issues with other religions “they don’t understand what it is they are objecting to or not objecting too. They just think that the whole area is one to be treated with kid-gloves and avoided. I feel that people are probably a bit confused about why they are doing or saying the things that they are doing.”
Perhaps contrary to popular belief, Christmas is still very much part of what many schools would have celebrated before they broke-up. Charlotte said that “I think that primary schools, the ones that I know of, do bring Christmas into the their end of term celebrations, maybe not in the way that an entirely Christian school would do. To me that seems perfectly sensible and what you would expect. It’s not written in stone anywhere that every school must have a Nativity play and what people should be worrying about is what sort of R.E. (Religious Education) curriculum do they have, what are their R.E. lessons like in that school. Is it suitable for the foundation of the school, if it’s a church school does it pay due respect to Christianity but also include other faiths, if it's not a church school is it a diverse R.E. curriculum for all the children in that school. That’s what people should worry about.” Charlotte said that “diversity should include those with a religious faith of all kinds and also those who have no religious faith at all. The interfaith contact group attempts to bring all these people together and especially to search out the common ground or at least to appreciate where other people are coming from and what matters to them. We share each other’s special times, so we might go to the mosque and break the fast at the end of Ramadan or we might come to the Synagogue to mark the Holocaust memorial day or we might help some Christian initiative.” Charlotte said that it was all about “trying to get people out of their boxes.”
Rabbi Sarah also tries to remain positive and optimistic and said that “when people come together, there’s such a richness to the traditions and a respect for where we’re all coming from. We listen to each other’s journeys and we can see the connections and we can see the disconnections, but it’s informed. It’s about being aware of one another. My middle-name is “Tikvah” which means ‘hope’. So I do live in hope and I work for hope.”