’Tis the season for tension over religious displays in public spaces, and the latest flareup was triggered by Santa's appearance at a Hoboken public school. The event triggered bureaucratic maneuvering and a noisy web-based debate edged with hostility toward Jews.
Last week, a parent complained about the longstanding tradition at Hoboken’s Salvatore R. Calabro Elementary School to allow children to pose for Santa photos, said Superintendent Mark Toback, who would not reveal the parent’s name.
The district ultimately responded on the advice of its lawyer by adding photo opportunities with a Hanukkah menorah and a kinara, a candleholder used to celebrate Kwanzaa. That event took place without incident on Dec. 20.
But before that happened, a Calabro parent who mistakenly believed the school had cancelled Santa altogether, rather than postponed the event, wrote a message on the town’s e-mail group for mothers asking “certain people” to remember that Calabro is not a Jewish school. She was upset that she had to disappoint her daughter, who had been looking forward to the occasion.
In the past decade, Hoboken has changed as a wave of redevelopment launched in the late 1980s and 1990s drew Manhattanites attracted by the town’s relatively cheaper housing and quick commute into the city. Since 2000, Hoboken’s population has surged oby 30 percent to 50,505, according to United States Census Bureau data, and the number of households making $200,000 or more rose to almost 20 percent from seven percent. The resulting economic and ethnic diversification has generated strain between the so-called “newcomers” and “born-and-raised” that some see playing out here over the role of Santa in the public schools.
“This particular incident has become a kind of flashpoint that has brought to light tensions that were probably already there, but that I had not seen before to this extent,” said Laura Siegel, a Jewish mother and public school teacher who also used to moderate the Hoboken Moms listserv.
The Jewish Week contacted the disappointed mother directly, as well as other posters who expressed similar sentiments, and posted a message on the listserv asking for comment, but received no replies.
Of course, this time of year, such conflicts flare up all over the country, said Marc Stern, associate general counsel of the American Jewish Committee. Generally, parents who object to the presence of Santa in a public school on the grounds that it violates the constitutional separation of church and state do not have legal recourse, he said. Courts have held that Santa Clauss is a secular figure, but his appearance is still often distressing to atheists, Jews and Muslims.
“Insensitive is too strong a word, but it’s clumsy,” Stern said. “It invites controversy that the schools don’t need, and it’s not as if there aren’t lots of other places where a kid can find Santa.”
Santa doesn’t appear in every Hoboken public school, but every first-grader in the district goes on an annual field trip to many stops including Santaland at Macy’s, where sitting on Santa’s lap is also part of the event, said Toback.
The comment that Calabro is not a Jewish school spurred a heated discussion on the listserv, which in turn inspired an article on Hoboken.Patch.com that attracted numerous vitriolic comments. Most criticized the minority for daring to dictate to the majority, but some mentioned Jews in particular. Another thread of comment insisted that Santa Claus is a secular symbol of the holiday season and scoffed at those who see him as Christian.
Hoboken’s Jewish residents are not of one mind on this issue, said Robert Scheinberg, the rabbi of the town’s sole synagogue, the Conservative United Synagogue of Hoboken. Indeed, some of the listserv and blog comments were from identified Jews, or those married to Jews, defending Calabro’s Santa tradition. (This reporter lives in Hoboken and attends USH.)
“Each year, the December holidays provide Jewish familes with the challenge of affirming a minority culture, as well as the opportunity to help children to understand that there’s nothing wrong with being different,” Scheinberg wrote to the congregation. “In fact, one of the most important and useful adult skills that parents can inculcate in their children is a deep comfort with being different from the mainstream.”
In Hoboken, a nativity scene sits outside the Town Hall, but there’s also a massive menorah, at which the town’s Chabad house conducted a sunset lighting ceremony. Hoboken’s Jewish population has become larger and more visible as the small city has grown, with the synagogue’s population growing by more than a third in the last ten years. Mayor Dawn Zimmer, a member of the synagogue, is the town’s first leader to be either female or Jewish.
Some Jewish residents of Hoboken do object to the presence of Santa in a public school, arguing that despite religious Christians’ desire to scrub their holiday of the commercial taint of Santa’s bag of toys, he is nonetheless associated more with Christmas than with the season in general.
“We should push anything that has anything to do with any kind of religion out of public schools,” said Anna Novosyolok, a Jewish Hoboken mother with a child in the public schools who immigrated to the United States from what is now Ukraine when she was 17. “For better or worse, Santa has come to represent Christmas.”
Novosyolok also said she was shocked by the emphasis in the listserv comments on Jews, as was Siegel.
Siegel, as well as synagogue member and Hoboken member Donna Olah-Reiken, say the incident and anger it triggered call out for further dialogue lest resentments harden into permanent rifts.