So when is a Christmas wreath not a Christmas wreath?

So when is a Christmas wreath not a Christmas wreath?

In December, just before Christmas, hundreds of thousands of wreaths adorned with large red bows were placed at graves in cemeteries across the country and abroad administered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration (NCA).

Sponsored by Wreaths Across America (WAA), the program began several years ago as a Christmas-associated event.  However, now designated as “remembrance wreaths,” the wreaths theoretically lack any religious significance.

Last March, during my tenure as president of my local rabbinical association, I was informed that wreaths were being laid at Jewish marked Jewish graves in the Sarasota, Fla., National Veterans Cemetery.

Since my colleagues and others considered this inappropriate, I wrote a letter to the director of the cemetery requesting that Jewish graves be excluded.  He replied that while wreaths would continue to be laid at all graves, Jewish family members could opt out if specifically requested.

During a subsequent phone conversation, I shared that though some Jewish families might not mind, the vast majority would not want the wreath.  I proposed the opposite approach: lay wreaths at Jewish graves only when a family desires it.  This was unacceptable in the director’s view.

In response to a letter I sent in May, the Department of Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Memorial Affairs in Washington finally replied — six months later — that the director’s position conformed squarely with VA policy. In the meantime, I contacted the national WAA office to ask that its Sarasota organizing committee refrain from placing wreaths on Jewish graves. A short time later a WAA representative notified me that the committee had agreed to this appeal.

Having learned that Arlington National Cemetery, under the auspices of the Army, makes clear that WAA wreaths are not to be placed on Jewish graves unless specifically desired, our rabbinical association requested that the WAA adopt the same policy. Its members were surprised to be told that national WAA guidelines already maintain wreaths should not be placed on Jewish graves. However, local WAA organizing committees are free to make up their own mind on the matter and VA cemetery directors do not interfere.

In December, the local WAA organizing committee violated its own agreement by placing wreaths on every grave in the cemetery here.  The leader of the committee claimed in the local press that because the wreaths were strictly in remembrance, they didn’t “symbolize one religion above another; they are placed to remind us that we have the freedom to choose what religion we wish to have, or not.” She further stated that the wreaths’ red bow “perfectly reflects our veterans’ service since red symbolizes courage, determination and love. What better way to accent an evergreen memorial.”

While asserting they are not holiday wreaths even though they “look like a holiday wreath,” she acknowledged that the company providing them (at a discount) is in the holiday wreath business. While most people buy them as Christmas wreaths, she said her organization does not and “also doesn’t talk about Christmas or any other holiday during the presentations at the cemetery.”

In a letter to the editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune I wrote that, while certainly well-intentioned, it would be more logical for remembrance wreaths to be placed on Veterans Day or Memorial Day, not a couple of weeks before Christmas, and that “such strong symbolism associated with one particular religion should not be readily identified with every grave in a national cemetery.”

Even though next year’s wreaths will not be laid for another 11 months, this is not a minor issue for those who take issue with the NCA’s studied indifference to national guidelines of an organization with which it has a formal partnership. Our local rabbinical association members hope that Jews from around the country will join us in actively seeking that, before next December, the NCA follow the same wreath policy as that of Arlington National Cemetery.

(Rabbi Jonathan R. Katz is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel, Longboat Key, Fla.)