How do we respect and protect our neighbor’s freedom of religion or belief this holiday season?
There we were, a hole in the putting green ten feet away and a gaudy bracelet hanging off my student’s tiny wrist, jangling every time the club in her hands collided with the golf ball.
“I like your bracelet,” I told her after a particularly jingly jangle.
“Thanks,” she replied with another swing. “I got it for Secret Maccabee at school.”
We watched the little white ball come to a slothful halt several yards shy of its target.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Well, I celebrate Christmas at home, but I go to a Jewish school. So, I’m learning about Hanukkah and we do Secret Maccabee instead of Secret Santa.”
Another swing, another micro-bell chorus from her wrist.
“So, you get to celebrate one and learn about the other? That’s so cool.”
“Yeah.” She shrugged. “It mostly just makes me happy to know what my friends from school are celebrating at home.”
Her words were touching and deeply authentic and I’ve been thinking about them since the lesson last week. The desire to understand what our friends are celebrating at home is a wonderfully unifying thought. Especially during the holiday season, when so many different religious and non-religious celebrations are taking place. Hanukkah celebrates the Jew’s victory in the fight for religious freedom over two thousand years ago, when the Maccabees took their temple back from an oppressive king.  It’s said that when they rededicated it, “they found only enough oil to light the menorah (lamp) for one day – but miraculously, that small amount of oil lasted for eight days, which is exactly how long it took to get new oil. Today, [the] celebration of Hanukkah lasts eight days, in honor of the miracles that occurred so many years ago.” 
The freedom to celebrate any holiday (or to abstain from celebration, as many validly do) is one that is protected by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  This is essential when it comes to legal implications. Ultimately, it’s conversations like the one I had with this child that balm the callousness of culture, solidifying the desire to protect those who are different than us while finding happiness and respect for their celebrations. There are many fantastic examples throughout history of people fighting for and protecting freedom of religion or belief for their neighbor, such as the powerful scene in the midst of the 2011 Egyptian revolution when Christian protestors literally banded together to create a human barrier of protection for Muslim protestors who were praying. A photo taken by Nevine Zaki in Cairo captures the intensity of the scene, made all the more powerful by the fact that this display of unity came just a month after a bombing killed 23 Coptic Christians in the area. 
Nevine Zaki, 2011 
The second World War provides many poignant examples of people protecting other’s freedom of religion or belief, such as the scores of Albanian Muslims who provided documentation and shelter for Jews fleeing the Nazi regime, resulting in the Jewish population of Albania growing from 200 to over 2,000.  Or the story of Thea Woolf, an Egyptian Jew whose account is explored in Martin Gilbert’s book “In Ishmael’s House.” She recalled the “marvelous and courageous collaboration between Egypt’s Jewish and Muslim communities to help Jewish refugees fleeing from Poland after the 1939 Nazi invasion.” 
Protecting our neighbor’s freedom of religion or belief thankfully doesn’t always involve resisting fascist regimes. It could involve homemade cookies doorbell-ditched on someone’s porch with a note reading “Happy Kwanzaa!” It could be serving soup at a shelter or donating presents for Christmas morning to a local family in need or sending a card to someone in a senior living center that hasn’t had a visitor in months because of health restrictions, or even learning about a belief system different than your own and saying, “it makes me happy to know what my friends are celebrating at home.”