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The Halloween influence in our shuls

Who needs trick-or-treating when kids receive a big pile of candy every Saturday morning -- and for what?

Jerry Seinfeld says it best: “For the first ten years of my life, the only clear thought I had was ‘get candy’. Family, friends, school are all just obstacles in my way to get candy. The first time you hear about Halloween as a kid, your brain cannot even process the information. Everyone is just giving out candy! I’ll wear anything I have to wear, do anything I have to do, just to get that candy.”

I love this routine by Seinfeld because it is nostalgic for me. I grew up less observant than I am today and was given the option to go trick or treating as a kid. I went to an Orthodox day school and I remember getting a letter home from the school at the end of October stating that Halloween was a night where Jews were attacked in pogroms in Medieval Europe. As a result, Jews should not be celebrating this anti-Semetic day. Later in life, I earned an MA in Jewish history and found this letter from my elementary school to be a complete lie. There is no historical record of any association of Halloween with pogroms nor anti-Semitism.

I love dressing up in costumes! As a Jewish educator, the most memorable lessons I have given are those when I am dressed up as Moses or Elijah the Prophet. As a children-centered licensed Israel tour guide, I am always in costumes, playing the roles of an Arab fighting the Crusades, a Hasidic Jew in 19th century Jerusalem and a wacky Kabbalist in Safed (to name a few).

So if children live for candy and dressing up in costumes is a fun outlet for creative play, what harm is there for Jewish youth to go trick or treating? The best answer I have heard is that Jewish holidays convey Jewish values to our children. For example, on Purim, the focus of Mishloach Manot is to give not to take. This is in contrast to trick or treating which is just about taking candy. The message that most kids get out of Halloween is that you can get free candy if you ask for it. This is far from any Jewish value we are trying to raise our children with.

Obesity is increasing in Western countries and the Jewish community is not immune to it. As food becomes more and more mass produced, it becomes less costly and less healthy. Please don’t misunderstand my view, everyone deserves to treat themselves (I don’t hold back from chocolate and the like). However, the current practice in most shuls today goes far and beyond the occasional treat.

My daughters join me at shul both on Friday night and Shabbat morning. It is a wonderful experience for them. They hear the singing of Lecha Dodi, they attend youth services, they see their friends, they feel part of a community. Their shul experience is very positive and I am very grateful for that. The shuls provide excellent programs for them, and, at the end, they are treated to a snack, much as a Kiddush is served at the end for the adults. The problem is the ‘free candy’ that my daughters and their friends pick up throughout Kabbalat Shabbat and Shacharit.

I do not allow my daughters to go trick or treating. Not because of false claims that it is a night that has a history of anti-Semitism, rather because I do not see any Jewish value that comes out of asking people for candy. Yet, my daughters have learned this detrimental lesson from going to shul! When I was a child at shul, I remember the shul had one candy man. Today, every other man over 50 has lollipops or sour sticks in his tallis bag to give out to kids. My daughters know exactly which men carry which candy with them.  Each shul visit, they come home with a bag of candies much like I did as a child on the night of October 31. If Seinfeld were Shomer Shabbat, he would have had a lot more material to add to his Halloween Shpiel. Shomer Shabbat youth have a much better deal than trick or treaters! After all, Halloween is just once a year, but Shabbat is every week! Furthermore, my daughters don’t need to wear a silly costume or say ‘trick or treat’. They get to wear their nicest clothes and say Good Shabbos. Then they fill their plastic bags with their candy collections.

I understand that the shul experience should be sweet for kids. That is why the rabbi or youth director should be the only ones distributing candy to deliver this valuable message. However, I and many other concerned parents are in a quandary, where the reason we avoid sending our children trick or treating is what is being practiced in our shuls today!

Let’s teach our children in our communities to give, not to take. Let’s move away from teaching the next generation that shul is a weekly opportunity for trick or treating.

About the Author
Rabbi Shaanan Scherer currently lives in Toronto, Canada with his wife and 3 children. After spending over a decade living and learning in Israel, Shaanan brings his Israel experience to both his classroom and on his child- centered Israel tours that he guides in the summertime.
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