The three-generation Brown family of Melrose celebrates an interfaith holiday, which includes volunteering at Temple Beth Shalom in Melrose. The temple hosts an annual Christmas dinner for non-Jews in need. From left: Norman, Adam, Sophie (14), Serena, Noah (17), Julie. ILENE PERLMAN

Melrose temple readies annual Christmas dinner, an interfaith tradition for more than 30 years

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Melrose temple readies annual Christmas dinner, an interfaith tradition for more than 30 years

The three-generation Brown family of Melrose celebrates an interfaith holiday, which includes volunteering at Temple Beth Shalom in Melrose. The temple hosts an annual Christmas dinner for non-Jews in need. From left: Norman, Adam, Sophie (14), Serena, Noah (17), Julie. ILENE PERLMAN

In the attic of Temple Beth Shalom in Melrose are all the necessities for the holidays.

Purim carnival games. Hanukkah party decorations. Ten Plagues toys for Passover.

And a fake Christmas tree, with garlands and tinsel.

“We want to make the space feel festive,” said Serena Brown, a member of the temple’s Christmas Dinner Committee. “There is nothing like Jews getting out there, putting up a Christmas tree and decorating it.”

To clarify: This “space” is the social hall of the Green Street Baptist Church in Melrose, where temple members have cooked and hosted an elaborate Christmas dinner for non-Jews in the community who would otherwise have no place to go.

This is the 35th year that the temple has mobilized to create some variation of this logistically challenging event that takes weeks to plan, involves multiple community partners, and manages to bring cheer – and a free turkey dinner – to many dozens of people.

Alas, since the pandemic started, the in-person gatherings have been on temporary hiatus, and dinners are prepared by a local restaurant and delivered to homes by temple volunteers.

“We have always had a strong streak of social action in the temple,” said Evans Travis, a longtime temple member who has been in on the event from the beginning. “There is a powerful thread in Judaism about tikkun olam (repairing the world) and I think that was one of the driving forces. You can’t just talk about brotherhood and fellowship. You have to practice it.”

Plenty of congregations endorse brotherhood and fellowship, but it’s uniquely fitting that at Temple Beth Shalom, this takes the form of an interfaith Christmas dinner. The temple is a small, family-oriented reform synagogue of about 110 families, and about 65 percent of the families are themselves interfaith, according to the temple’s rabbi, Jessica Lowenthal.

These demographics are in keeping with the Pew Research Center’s Jewish Americans in 2020 report, which found that the rate of interfaith marriage among non-Orthodox Jews is 72 percent.

“What’s in the Pew Report is really our community,” Lowenthal said. “Around December, I always talk about the fact that what keeps us together and what keeps us similar are way more important than the things that are different among us. The dinner is a very easy thing to involve kids in, and it’s lovely to show kids that we are living our values.”

Many interfaith families have a complicated relationship to Christmas, she said.

“Most of the kids [in the temple] are being raised Jewish, and many are probably going to their grandparents’ for Christmas, and have a tree. Christmas carries lots of memories from childhood, and every family navigates it their own way.”

During her schooling, Lowenthal worked for University of Rhode Island Hillel, “and the amount of kids who were, like, ‘I’m only half-Jewish,’ or ‘I’m not really Jewish’ – it broke my heart,” she said. “You can claim your identity and you don’t have to modify it. If you opt in to the Jewish community, you can be 100 percent Jewish. And for this community, the avenue into being Jewish tends to be through community service and social justice.”

For many, the avenue into community service is through roasted turkey breast and other Christmas fixings.

The dinner’s origins go back to 1986, when Evans Travis and three other temple members heard that a group of volunteers in Haverhill were putting on a dinner for Christians with nowhere to go for Christmas. They checked it out.

“It was very unpretentious, and we thought, we could do this!” Travis said.

What happened next is a bit unclear – it’s been 35 years, after all. But according to a brief history of the Christmas dinner written by Travis for a temple bulletin, a core group of temple members prepared and served their first Christmas dinner the very next year, at the temple, and have kept it up every year. Before long, they ran out of space and moved it to the First Baptist Church in Melrose, which had a bigger kitchen.

Soon, the Melrose community began to rally. Word of the event spread to nearby Malden, Medford, Saugus, Stoneham and Wakefield. They put out flyers and ads to attract guests and volunteers, and solicited donations of food and funds from Melrose and beyond.

A flyer for one of the early Christmas dinners, excavated from the temple’s archives, is strikingly unorthodox, to put it mildly. It’s an illustration of a red Santa Claus in a sleigh, juxtaposed against the temple’s Hebrew logo.

The brochure from 2000 lists a Benediction and Grace as part of the program, along with “Music & Songs of the Season” by the Temple Beth Shalom ensemble. (There were 12 items on the menu, including “Apple Juice Cocktail,” “Fruit Festival,” “Yankee Sweet Potatoes,” and “String Beans with Mushrooms.”)

Somewhere along the way – no one seems to recall when – the event moved to Green Street Baptist Church.

Planning for the event begins in October, according to Liza Weinstein, who’s been on the Christmas Committee for five years. The temple partners with the Melrose Council on Aging which gets the word out in Melrose and neighboring communities, and keeps track of reservations.

Around Thanksgiving, a fundraising solicitation goes out to a long list of donors, local businesses, and elected officials; the money raised pays for the food, and there are in-kind donations and gift cards from area businesses.

(Before COVID, everyone walked away from the church dinner with a little gift bag.) Children in local elementary schools and the Temple’s Shalom School make cards for everyone. On Christmas Eve, temple members come in to decorate.

Key to this whole operation is Scott Macaulay, a non-Jewish Melrose activist and vacuum cleaner repairman. Since 1985, Macaulay, proprietor of Macaulay’s House of Vacuum Cleaners, has cooked and hosted a celebrated Thanksgiving dinner in Melrose churches for dozens of people who are food-insecure or have nowhere else to go. He knows all the ins and outs of putting together a holiday meal for a crowd, and is generous with assistance to temple members; he even opens up the church early on Christmas morning to get the heat and the oven fired up, and helps sets tables and clean up.

“When I used to make the turkeys, it was just me and Scott hanging out in the church in the morning,” said Serena Brown, who would always take a “super early” shift to have Christmas dinner with her non-Jewish in-laws, who also volunteer at the temple.

“I do whatever is helpful,” Macaulay said. “One year I even walked around as Santy Claus.”

Another time, he rescued an elderly man who seemed to be choking, by delivering life-saving abdominal thrusts. “He was rushed to the hospital, and later I called him to see how he was doing,” Macaulay said. “He said, ‘Thank you for saving my life, and by the way, did you ever find my false teeth?’ ”

Temple member and musician Taylor Rubbins – a non-Jew whose husband grew up Orthodox – leads the guests in Christmas song. “There’s ‘The Little Drummer Boy,’ ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing,’ ‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘Frosty the Snowman’ – all the stuff you hear when you go shopping,” she said. “Everyone knows them. And some of the students in the synagogue and the adult Jewish people stand around the piano and sing, too. I miss it terribly, I gotta tell you, with COVID on the rise.”

Like other groups, businesses, schools and organizations, the Christmas Dinner Committee has had to pivot since the pandemic started. This year, for the third year, they’ve deemed it unsafe to gather in the church kitchen and social hall, and once again they’ll be delivering the meals. Early Harvest Diner of Wakefield will prepare and package dinners on Christmas Eve day. Dinners will be refrigerated overnight in half a dozen different locations across Melrose, including, of course, Macauley’s House of Vacuum Cleaners. Table Talk Pies, a family-owned business in Worcester, donates dessert.

On Christmas Day, volunteers retrieve the food, pack it up and deliver it to homes.

“We are very conflicted about having to offer home-delivered meals again,” said Emily Levine, also on the Christmas Dinner Committee. “We know how much people appreciate having a place to go. But it is safer this way right now, and we reach so many more people.” They served about 70 guests the last year it was held at the church; this year, they expect to deliver about 250 meals.

Volunteers say they’re gratified by the response from people who receive the meals, like the military veteran in Melrose who left an emotional phone message saying the dinner “means so much to me.”

But the gratitude goes both ways.

“My family is interfaith; my husband was raised Christian, and for the most part we are a practicing Jewish family,” said Liza Weinstein. “But Christmas dinners are really important to my husband, given the way he grew up. And at the same time, we want to make community and giving and performing mitzvot and charity an important part of our children’s lives. So the Temple Christmas dinner really brings it all together, in a really nice way.” Θ

Linda Matchan can be reached at matchan@jewishjournal.org

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