For Jerry Chiat, donning the red Santa suit every December is not about religion.
The 76-year-old resident of Owings Mills is not alone in his belief that, in playing Santa, he adds a bit of light to the world of some of the children and adults he meets once a year.
Another “Jewish Santa,” Rick Rosenthal, shares his belief—that “we are all here to make the world a better place, practicing tikkun olam, helping to repair the world.” The Orthodox Jew from Atlanta is not only known as “the quintessential Santa Claus,” he also leads the second-largest “Santa training school” in the country: Northern Lights Santa Academy.
And there’s Dana Friedman, a New York attorney featured in The Forward in 2018 and, most recently, on curbed.com. Friedman attended Yeshiva in Flatbush, speaks Hebrew and has been playing Santa for the past 20 years. He said he sees his role as an act of tzedakah (“charity” or giving back), and very often, it has him listening to hard stories from children whose parents may be deployed or who need to feel comforted.
An Orthodox Jew, Rosenthal knows who he is and what he believes. The same goes with Friedman, who cherishes the Jewish values and traditions that have been passed on from generation to generation.
As so does Chiat, who grew up in an observant Jewish home on the 1400 of E. Baltimore St. in East Baltimore. His grandparents came from Lithuania and were part of the bustling Jewish immigrant scene in downtown Baltimore where Chiat, his parents and his siblings grew up. The family attended shul at one of the synagogues in downtown Baltimore, most of which have since closed, the buildings razed or converted to other uses.
Chiat has played Santa at various venues for the last 35 years, sometimes accompanied by his wife of 54 years, Eileen, as “Mrs. Claus.”
Today, the couple attends Beth Israel Congregation, a Conservative shul in Owings Mills. They have been featured before in the Baltimore Jewish Times, sharing their story (“A Kidney for a Kidney”) about Jerry’s kidney transplant, and Eileen’s selfless act of donating one of hers to help him move up on the transplant list. In May of this year, they celebrated the 10th anniversary of Jerry’s kidney transplant.
‘Making the world a bit better’
Chiat recalls the first time he played Santa about three decades ago; he and Eileen were volunteering at Kennedy Krieger’s Festival of Trees (then held near the Convention Center), helping with the lines of people coming to see Santa. Santa was out sick the second year, and Chiat was asked if he would dress up and take requests for the day. When Krieger moved the event to Timonium Fairgrounds, Chiat was again asked to play Kris Kringle.
He donned a nylon beard back then, recalled Chiat. But after six years, the fake beard became a problem when a toddler grabbed it and Chiat, concerned about losing a key part of his costume, wound up having to follow the child’s movements, not wanting to give Santa “away.”
Chiat decided to grow his own seasonal beard shortly afterwards; he would shave it after the holidays and start growing it again in the summer.
He reserves the majority of his appearances for nonprofit organizations, though he will honor requests from friends or business customers. Eileen starts keeping track of “Santa’s schedule” right after Thanksgiving; the days fill up quickly.
This year, Chiat was back at the SPCA’s “Pet Photos with Santa” (where he is one of two taking snapshots with people and their pets), the Maryland Sickle Cell Disease Association and the Perry Point VA Medical Center-VA Maryland Health Care System.
For five years, he volunteered at the Pediatric Wing of the University of Maryland Hospital until COVID made personal appearances impossible. Chiat also donned the red suit at Union Memorial Hospital for a few years and at the Baltimore Symphony for one year. He also happily fills in when other Santas are unavailable to visit hospitals or centers serving children.
Chiat described his visits to Perry Point as the most touching, where he has met young veterans with serious injuries and where, he explained, he tries to bring a degree of comfort to both the patients and the parents who visit.
Asked how he reconciles playing Santa with his Jewish faith, Chiat replied: “It’s about caring for other people. Because you care about people, you care about family, and the people who play Santa do their best to uphold their best position as Santa. And that is what the Jewish faith is as well—about making the world a little bit better, a little bit lighter. It’s something I enjoy doing.”