An Orthodox Jewish rabbi disguised himself as Santa Claus to surprise his foster children who celebrate Christmas

santa rabbi shmuly yanklowitz

  • Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz and his family are currently fostering two children, both age 3, who came from a Christian home.
  • He dressed up as Santa Claus to surprise the children so that they wouldn't miss out on the experience due to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Yanklowitz, an Orthodox rabbi, comes from an interfaith family himself and hopes to promote religious pluralism and tolerance.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Santa Claus came to town — thanks to an Orthodox rabbi in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz and his wife Shoshana have been foster parents for years, in addition to having four children of their own. They currently have two foster children who are brothers, one who just turned 3 and one who is about to turn 4.

In the past, Yanklowitz has taken foster children to meet Santa during the holiday season, but the coronavirus pandemic ruled that out this year. Still, he noticed the brothers' love of Christmas — singing "Jingle Bells," noticing the neighbors' Christmas lights, asking about Santa Claus — and wanted to do something to help them celebrate.

A friend offered to walk down their street in a Santa outfit for a socially-distant visit, but Yanklowitz didn't think that would cut it. When he posted on Facebook about his dilemma, another friend sent him a Santa Claus costume.

"I knew because of COVID I wouldn't let them go see any Santa or meet someone new, so once it became clear that it had to be me, and someone sent me the outfit, it made a lot of sense to just do it myself," he told Insider.

Yanklowitz snuck into the garage, put on the Santa costume, queued up some Christmas music on his phone, and rang the doorbell

Yanklowitz with one of his foster children, whose face has been obscured to protect his privacy.
Courtesy of Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

"They were totally shocked when I opened the door," he said. "I tried to make it quick, and I couldn't believe they didn't know it was me. I thought for sure they would say 'Is that you?' or that one of our kids would give it away, but our kids went along with it. It worked perfectly."

Yanklowitz gave the boys presents and had them sit on his lap, just like they would at the mall.

"The older one in particular was just thrilled," he said. "The younger one was actually a little bit shy and scared, which is pretty typical in Santa culture for really little kids, so he didn't engage as much, but the older one was jumping up and down and went right on my lap and was looking at me and smiling, in a state of shock and awe."

He shared the experience on Facebook, even though he knew an Orthodox rabbi dressing up as Santa might raise some eyebrows.

"I was very aware posting this that it was going to bring out major critics who would say I've crossed lines, that I'm not a real rabbi, or I'm distorting the tradition, or all these things that I'd heard," he said. "I decided it's much more important to me to promote models of religious pluralism and tolerance and to promote engagement with supporting vulnerable children than it is to defend my reputation."

Yanklowitz knows firsthand how important Christmas can be to young kids, having been raised in an interfaith home himself.

"As a kid, Christmas was a big thing in our home — Christmas trees, ornaments, lights, Santa experiences," he said. "I think back on it and there's really nothing in my life I can think of like this, this completely magical, awe-filled experience of wonder and warmth and love that I remember feeling. I couldn't have imagined as a kid there being a year where any of that didn't exist. It was so built into the cycle of life, and that consistency was so important to me as a kid. I don't know what their Christmas looked like last year, but I wanted to hedge my bets and make sure it was as positive and as similar to what they've had in the past as possible."

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