In Bet Yeladim's colorful preschool classrooms, Wendy Scherer sang Hanukkah songs led by Miss Debbie and Miss Harriet, and learned to make oil-free potato pancakes called latkes and chocolate-dipped spoons.
"It was very fun," Scherer said. "I brought the spoon home and ate ice cream with it."
But Scherer is not a pupil at the Columbia Jewish preschool and kindergarten. A business researcher and mother of three, Scherer was one of a dozen participants at a child-rearing workshop sponsored by Bet Yeladim at Beth Shalom Synagogue.
The two-hour program, led by teachers Debbie Manneville and Harriet Kochen last week, was designed to teach parents how to make Hanukkah a "fun-filled family experience without it being a present-giving frenzy."
"We all thought that Hanukkah was becoming present after present," Manneville said. "We wanted to show how to make it so it's not quite so commercial, so children will give of themselves to tzedakah -- charity -- to family, to friends, and to gather with friends and family to enjoy the spirit of the holiday."
The eight-day Festival of Lights, which will begin Sunday at sundown, commemorates the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees after their victory over the Syrian-Greek regime. This week, Bet Yeladim students created menorahs for the holiday.
At the workshop last week, Manneville and Kochen suggested cooking latkes with youngsters, reading Hanukkah stories, singing holiday songs, playing Hanukkah-oriented games such as Hanukkah bingo, implementing charitable projects, reading Jewish Web sites for ideas, and inviting another family to share in the festivities.
"It's an alternative to gift-giving, what parents can do in their home with children as a family to celebrate Hanukkah, to keep the emphasis on the meaning of the holiday," said Barbara Frederick, Bet Yeladim's associate director. "Even if parents walked away with one alternative, it was worth it."
Parents also were provided with packets containing blessings to recite while lighting the menorah, holiday recipes and a holiday guide, and a bibliography of early-childhood books.
"We're trying to figure out how to celebrate the holiday," said participant Amy Latkin, whose husband, Carl, is Jewish. "We found that we're not the only family with the dilemma of how to celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas ... that emphasizes more the value of family and celebrating with friends."
Latkin, whose daughter Sophia, 3, attends Bet Yeladim, said de-emphasizing gift-giving was particularly necessary because her 6-year-old son, Noah, celebrates his birthday before Christmas. "It was just a present orgy every December," said Latkin, a public health researcher.
Her family will create a gingerbread train and chocolate spoons, and play host to a Hanukkah party for four other Bet Yeladim families at their home in Harper's Choice village. "The workshop gave me a boost of confidence and ideas to hopefully pull it off," Latkin said.
She asked each family to bring an activity, and all will decorate Latkin's homemade cookies. "We're hoping the kids will remember this gathering more than their gifts," Latkin said.
Scherer, who lives in River Hill village, attended the workshop for ideas to make the holiday more meaningful for sons David, 6, Reed, 4, and Max, 3. "I wanted to see how I could make Hanukkah more of a family event than just a week of presents," she said. "I got so much out of the class. ... One of the best ideas was finding a different way to give tzedakah every day. So we're working at home on a list of eight things we want to do."
Scherer and her husband, Andrew, will limit gift-giving to one evening. "Last year, we gave out gifts every night," she said. "It was awful. By the sixth night it was, `What did I get?' I hated that. It just seemed greedy."
Scherer also learned to implement a theme to each night and will schedule gift night, game night, brothers night and family night by inviting another family to celebrate. They also will make latkes and applesauce together. "My kids are young enough to instill this," she said. "I would like to make this meaningful and forever so they will always remember Hanukkah as a fun, family week."
As they have done every Hanukkah, they will begin each evening by lighting the menorah. But this year they will start a new tradition: each child will light his own. "So with all the lights, it will really be beautiful," Scherer said.