Valley schoolchildren learn diversity this holiday season

The Vindicator (Youngstown)


Jackson-Milton Elementary students Raenah Rader, 8, and Dalton Lockner, 9, play with a dreidel as part of an educational presentation on the history and customs of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah.

The Vindicator (Youngstown)


Third grade students (from left to right ) Jasmine Telfair Raelynn Haefke and Keriah Johnson present their favorite holiday to the class: Christmas. Third grade students of Woodside Elementary school invited family to join them Friday morning for a presentation of holidays from around the world and across the calendar.

By Kristine Gill


The Christmas stockings decorating Kathy Wetzl’s third-grade classroom saw a rare juxtaposition last week as students learned about Hanukkah.

“I learned we have Hanukkah eight days,” said Jackson-Milton Elementary student Madison Fowler.

Madison had a front-row seat during the lesson taught by Cindy Fiol, an intervention specialist at the school whose husband is Jewish. Though many public schools focus on Christmas this time of year, the lesson was part of an effort to educate students about other celebrations.

“I think there’s a lot of prejudice around, and it doesn’t have to be racial, but it can be based on religion or anything in life,” Fiol said. “I think that if children are exposed to something and learn a little bit ... it can bridge the gaps between groups of people.”

During the lesson, students learned the basic premise of the holiday, helped to light a menorah and played with tiny wooden dreidels. Fiol gave each student a chocolate coin called “gelt,” which Jewish children typically receive around that time of year.

“I learned that oil could burn a long time, and they were thanking God for the oil burning and there was a miracle,” third-grader Dalton Lockner said.

Most band, orchestra and choir concerts have holiday themes this time of year with names such as the “Annual Fitch Band Christmas Concert” and “Canfield Holiday Concert.”

Wes O’Connor, Fitch High School’s band director, tries to vary his music selection each year.

“To be honest with you, I really don’t put much thought into covering different religions,” he said. “I really just look at whether it’s a good arrangement and if kids like playing it.”

A Fitch tradition is to end each concert with a piece called “Russian Christmas Music” by Alfred Reed.

“It’s not Christmas until the Fitch band plays ‘Russian Christmas Music,’” O’Connor said.

This year’s performance includes songs about bell carols and snow days. O’Connor said he uses a Hanukkah medley every few years. He said he’s open to suggestions for other types of religious music if it’s a good arrangement. “I mix it up,” he said.

Joie Mozena is the director of child development for the Jewish Community Center on Gypsy lane. She said diversity is what fuels her program.

“We’ve had families in our program who are Hindu, families who are Muslim and of course Christian and Jewish. We’ve had families who were atheists,” she said.

Although it’s called the Jewish Community Center, Mozena said the teachings are based more on Jewish concepts and culture and not necessarily religious practices.

This year, the name for their annual holiday celebration was changed from the Family Hanukkah Celebration to the Winter Celebration.

“We wanted to make sure families felt welcome since we do have such a diverse population here,” she said.

Plans for next year’s program include presentations from different families who explain their religious practices this time of year.

“Families tend to like the diversity a lot,” Mozena said of the center.