Halloween: But is it Good for the Jews?

by, Hillary Pinsker, Education Director

This year, October 31 falls on a Wednesday (it’s also the 22nd of Cheshvan, Yom Revi’i, just to note). And Wednesday afternoons, for our 3rd-7th graders, we have Chaverim School class from 4:30-6pm. This timing has caused no small amount of consternation for many of our families, who are faced with the challenging logistics of getting kids home, fed, and costumed (along with younger siblings, for many), connecting with neighborhood friends, and trick-or-treating, to say nothing of finishing secular school homework and getting kids to bed at a decent hour since it’s a school night too. Because, of course, October 31 is Halloween, and for many of our families, as for many of their non-Jewish friends and neighbors, it’s a really big deal.

“Are we still having Hebrew School next Wednesday?” I overheard a student ask a teacher last week. “Nobody is going to come, you know, ‘cause it’s Halloween.” “Yes, I’ll be here teaching,” the teacher responded. “Halloween isn’t a Jewish holiday.” This is patently true. As you may already know, Halloween likely originated as a Celtic, Druidic religious festival, marking the transition to the New Year and winter with this night where the boundary between the living and the dead, between gods and humans, disappeared temporarily. It was also deemed an auspicious opportunity for divination and prayer, which was particularly important at a time when it could not be taken for granted that one’s family and livestock would survive the winter. Many current Halloween traditions-- like Jack-o-lanterns, ghosts, and witches, have roots in these ancient sources. Early Christianity likely co-opted these existing festival and practices into its “All Hallow’s Eve” or “All Saints Eve,” and many Christians still observe this time of year as a religious holiday; November 1, All Saint’s Day, is usually a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation, when adherents are expected to attend mass to honor the saints.

So much for Halloween’s history and origins; but its history and origins, one might argue, are a far cry from its current, largely secular iteration. This is certainly the view taken by the many Jewish Americans who happily and un-conflictedly embrace Halloween traditions like dressing up, carving pumpkins, and doling out sweets to neighborhood children. From this perspective, Halloween is a community-building celebration, providing us a chance to connect with our neighbors and enjoy some silliness (and candy). Even if it’s not Jewish in origin, it strengthens the Jewish value (certainly the Reconstructionist value) of havurah/community.

At the other extreme, there are Jews who would never dream of partaking in Halloween festivities. As Jews, one might argue, we have our own unique holiday for merriment and costumes--Purim, where (in keeping with Jewish values) rather than encouraging our children to go door-to-door soliciting handouts, mitzvot include making and sending mishloach manot/gift baskets and giving matanot l’evyonim/gifts to the poor. And as to the argument that Halloween is purely, or for all intents and purposes, secular--well, we’ve certainly heard that before, from non-Jews encouraging us to participate in Valentine’s Day (it’s totally secular! It’s about love and friendship and not at all historically linked to massacres of Jews!) ...and Easter (it’s totally secular! It’s about spring and bunnies and egg hunts!) ...and Christmas (ok, so maybe it’s not *totally* secular, but some would (and have) contend it can be observed in a secular way, with decorated trees and Santa Claus and gifts).

Some Jews find a middle road between these two poles, and make their peace with Halloween by infusing it with Jewish values, by trick-or-treating for UNICEF, or donating candy to worthy causes. For many families, being able to share Halloween with our mostly non-Jewish neighbors softens our feelings of otherness that arise when we are unable to partake of much more openly Christian-oriented community celebrations like Easter and Christmas. As a Reconstructionist Jewish educator, I don’t have an agenda about what I think you should do, about what position you ought to take along the spectrum from embracing to eschewing Halloween. Halloween, for all its debatable merits or deficiencies, isn’t about Judaism.

But I’m thinking and writing about it because, as Mordecai Kaplan writes in his seminal work Judaism as a Civilization, “Jews in the diaspora must of necessity live within two civilizations, and will therefore have to adjust themselves to that necessity by participating in both.” This has been our reality for centuries, and this time of year is just one of many in which we are reminded that we do indeed live in (at least) two civilizations, and have to grapple with any conflicts that may arise in our dual identities. My agenda as a Reconstructionist Jewish educator is for our children (and families) to be able to think critically, and from a Jewishly informed and connected position, as they make their own decisions about the best ways to “live within two civilizations.” Next Wednesday-- October 31st, and the 22nd of Cheshvan-- we’ll have Chaverim School as usual. I hope students will come and learn--we’ve got so much to offer. I’ll be here, and so will our teachers, and our rich and engaging curriculum. But whatever parents and children decide, I hope it comes from a place of knowledge and thoughtfulness, and wish you wisdom and peace as you straddle your worlds.Halloween: But is it Good for the Jews?

Who We Are

The Chaverim (“Friends”) Religious School at Temple Hillel B’nai Torah provides a warm, dynamic, and joyful learning experience from within a relaxed, urban setting. As Reconstructionist Jews, we are rooted in tradition yet responsive to the world we live in. Students learn in and out of the classroom through stories, music, Jewish cooking, art, sports, and more, as valued members of a safe and caring community. The Chaverim School is open to children ages 3 to 18*. Registration is required, and financial aid is available.

Additional Information

Students at the Chaverim School

Learn Judaism through living it-- at Shabbat and other holidays, carving out “sacred time” at school, services, and home.  
Gain competency in prayer Hebrew, and learn to actively participate in and lead services-- a skill they will carry with them throughout their lives.
Have a safe forum to wrestle with life’s big questions, learning about traditional and modern Jewish answers and developing their own.
Become part of a warm, inclusive community where they are encouraged to think not “How can I be served,” but rather “How can I contribute?”

Our Mission

We work together to help our children develop into thoughtful, engaged, and grounded young adults who have their own unique personal connections to Judaism, as well as a connection to one another and to the larger world. For students in K, 1st, and 2nd grade, families may enroll their children in the Chaverim School for one year without being members of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah.  After one year, families who wish to continue in the Chaverim School are expected to formally join the Temple.  Dues for Temple membership are on an income-based sliding scale. Families with children entering the Chaverim School after 2nd grade will need to meet with the Education Director to assess the child’s knowledge level in areas of study. Additional makeup work may need to be completed to bring the student up to grade level skills.


Our wonderful teachers bring so much to our children and our community! We have some faculty members who have been with us for many years, and some who are newer, but all share the Chaverim School mission of educating children in a warm, dynamic, and joyful environment.  As with our synagogue community, we value the diversity of our staff, who represent a range of life stages and Jewish beliefs and practice, modeling various ways to live an authentic Jewish life.  Some of our faculty members have advanced degrees in education and/or Jewish Studies, while some are still completing their undergraduate studies at nearby universities.

We employ teachers who are passionate about Jewish living, who love working with children, and who are experienced in classroom and/or camp settings.  We also expect our teachers to be “reflective practitioners” who are thoughtful about their skills and techniques in the classroom, and are always open to continued growth and learning.  We support our teachers with opportunities for professional development throughout the year, and strive to create a supportive atmosphere in which teachers work together, and learn with and from each other. All of our teachers have been cleared by a CORI criminal background check.

Click HERE to learn more about our wonderful teachers!

Chaverim School by Grade

Preschool (Parparim) students, ages 3 & 4, meet monthly on Sunday mornings from 10am-11:30am (except for pre-scheduled Saturday Kulanu Yachad programs) for a family (parent and child) program.

Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade (Gan, Alef, and Bet) students meet weekly on Sunday mornings from 9:45am-12:15pm, except for pre-scheduled Saturday Kulanu Yachad programs.

Grades 3-6 (Gimel, Dalet, Hey, and Vav) meet on Sunday mornings 9:45am-12:15pm and Wednesday afternoons from 4:30-6pm. They also participate in our popular, mixed-grade B’reirot/Electives program.

Grade 7 (Zayin) meets weekly on Sunday mornings from 9:45am-12:15pm. They also participate in 5 pre-b’nai mitzvah family education sessions with Rabbi Penzner. 

For post b’nai mitzvah education, grades 8-12 (Chet through Siyum) meet for informal monthly classes. Our oldest students (11th and 12th graders) study with Rabbi Penzner. Additionally, high school students are eligible to apply to become madrichim (junior teachers) in the Chaverim School.


We are all part of K’lal Yisrael, the Jewish community, and have a responsibility to actively support and sustain the Jewish community in various ways.  Alongside this responsibility, we acknowledge the fact that as Jews, our obligation to the Jewish people stands in perpetual tension with our obligations to humanity. Our Chaverim School community is a microcosm of the broader community, in which we live out our values of supporting one another, respecting one another, and treating each other thoughtfully and kindly.  Creating community is not always easy, but as Jews, and especially as Reconstructionist Jews, we believe it is worth the effort.  It helps us see beyond ourselves and learn to accept others’ differences, which makes us stronger individually and as a community. We foster both school and class community through shared meals and events, and encourage Chaverim School families’ connection to and participation in the broader Temple community.


We teach about mitzvot (Jewish obligations toward others, ourselves, and the world, which are our framework for righteous behavior) as “what you do ‘cause you’re a Jew.” The students study mitzvot related to ritual observance, caring for the environment and natural world, and ethical behavior in relationships.  As Jews, we do not face the world passively, looking to consume and receive, but rather with an awareness of our responsibility to appreciate what is good and strive for what is right.

We believe that as Jews, we are obligated to sanctify our everyday lives, to treat others with kindness and respect, and to help repair the world whenever and wherever possible. Our community is inspired to act by the ancient words: “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin lehitabel mimena; It is not up to you to complete the work, yet you are not free to avoid it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21).  Students have the opportunity to do acts of tikkun olam (repairing the world) through various hands-on activities. Students learn about mitzvot/Jewish obligations as they are connected to and stem from Jewish values, which they study through stories, ethical dilemmas, and core texts.  We want students to be able to make informed decisions about their own Jewish practice, with an understanding of the range of mitzvot and their sources. 

The students learn about Israel as our ancient Jewish homeland, a place where the Hebrew language thrives, and the only country in the world that is a “home” for the Jewish people.  We emphasize the relationships between Jews and other citizens of the State of Israel, and enjoy exploring modern Israeli culture.  While recognizing the complexity of the current political climate, we seek to stress positive developments, and remain passionately hopeful about peaceful co-existence between Israeli Jews and our neighbors in the Middle East.  We also encourage families to consider traveling to Israel and to enroll students in the Passport to Israel program.

School Forms and Documents

Please Register by August 10th

School Cancellation/Snow Policy

On Sundays when inclement weather is forecast, the Education Team will make a decision about holding class by 8:00 a.m. and will activate the school emergency phone system. Decisions about Wednesday cancellations will be made as quickly as possible.  Please be sure that we have your correct emergency contact information.

We will list school cancellation on WBZ (online, radio and TV).

The Temple HBT website and office phone (617-323-0486, x15) will also have school closure information available.

I call it FUNday school, not Sunday school, ‘cause it’s so fun!
— Eli, age 6


We believe that for students to learn and participate fully, they must first feel safe, and creating and maintaining a safe environment for all children is a prerequisite function of our staff.  We believe that every human being is created b’tzelem elohim, in the Divine image; as such, each child must be valued for his or her unique self.  Teachers model respect for all children and what they bring to the community.  As a Reconstructionist congregation, we emphasize the value of Jewish peoplehood.  Judaism is viewed as an “evolving religious civilization,” and there is a place for all of our children within that community.  At HBT, each child is cared for as a person and an important member of the community.

We strive for all students to feel safe, valued, and cared for in the Chaverim School community.

We warmly welcome many different kinds of families into our community and school, including interfaith, differently-abled, single-parent, gay/lesbian, transgender, multi-racial, and multi-cultural households, and parents of all different Jewish backgrounds.  We consider the diversity of our school to be a unique gift that organically fosters tolerance and acceptance, reflects our Jewish values, and is a great source of pride to our community.


We want our students to develop basic literacy in Jewish values, history, spirituality, peoplehood, and the language of Judaism.  But equally importantly, we want our students to know that they are an important part of the Jewish community, and to find their own ways of connecting to and participating in that community.

We create a warm, dynamic, multifaceted learning experience for our students that encompasses many aspects of Judaism within the context of being part of a community. Teachers engage students via different learning modalities and activities, both traditional and innovative.   We recognize that there are many varieties of Jewish experience and expression, and seek to provide students with a level of competency in certain areas of Jewish living, while also exposing them to a broader range so that students can choose to further explore their own interests within Judaism.

There are six main components to the curriculum, which are interwoven throughout all grades in developmentally appropriate ways:


In Torah study, the students encounter not only the Five Books of Moses, but other Jewish texts from the Bible and Talmud, midrash (creative exegesis) and stories.  We teach the Bible as the special book of the Jewish people that reflects our encounter with the Divine.  The Bible is viewed as neither a history book nor a science text, and its protagonists do not always act nobly, but it contains stories from our ancient tradition that can still teach us today.

When students engage in discussion and debate about some of the key human themes that emerge in Torah--family, responsibility, justice, leadership--they are connected to generations of Jews who have wrestled with these same texts throughout history.  We invite students to hone their critical thinking skills in textual analysis, to engage in dramatic retellings, and to enter into the stories and truly empathize with the characters’ struggles.


Hebrew is a key to the treasure box of Jewish heritage and culture.  The Hebrew language connects us to Jewish people of all lands, throughout history, and is also valued as a language of the modern State of Israel. 

Teachers infuse the classrooms with modern Hebrew.  We learn and use Hebrew when studying holidays, when labeling common objects, and in appropriate situations (such as taking attendance) so that students can really see Hebrew as a living language.

Students learn to decode Hebrew fluently (with regular homework).  They also learn to understand and translate key words and phrases that are important for understanding and participating meaningfully in Jewish prayer.


Jewish holidays help us to lead a life of meaning by creating and recognizing sacred time.  Jewish identity comes from celebrating Shabbat and the holidays together, as well as recognizing that we are Jewish every day. 

Students learn about different holidays as they arise throughout the school year.  Each grade focuses on particular holidays, and students learn different aspects of the holidays as they revisit them each year.  Over time, studying and observing the holidays at school, synagogue, and home helps the students internalize the rhythms of the Jewish year in their lives.


Avodah is a special kind of work that we undertake to find sacred connections to God, community, and self.  Prayer strengthens our sense of appreciation for what is good, reminds us of work still undone, and helps us find our place in the world. 

Our students also explore their connections to God and spirituality in age-appropriate ways in each grade, developing their own concepts of Godliness, holiness, and divinity as they encounter these subjects in prayers and elsewhere.  We encourage students to consider what is sacred, special, and holy to them, and learn to value and strengthen these connections.  We recognize that as for adults, children’s spirituality is not “one size fits all.” Students may find (or not find) God/holiness in formal services, the natural world, meditation, or other people.  We teach respect for others’ beliefs, and the importance of actively developing spiritual awareness and skills in a busy world.

Students learn different key prayers each year in class (for holidays, meals, special times, and services), study the structure of the prayer service, and have the opportunity to participate in and help lead our twice-monthly Chaverim School community Ma’ariv (evening) and Shaharit (morning) services. Students in sixth and seventh grades frequently assist the rabbi in leading the Torah service on Shabbat as they are preparing for the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.   Students are always welcome at Temple HBT services!

Over time, students become comfortable and competent in the prayer service, a valuable skill (and key element of Jewish literacy) that they carry with them throughout their lives.  Students study the contents of the prayers, as well as when and why we pray.  Engaging in the practice of avodah can bring order, beauty, meaning and insight to our lives.