For Jews, the "December Dilemma" usually means getting through Christmas without being overwhelmed by the holiday's pervasiveness. This year there's more: What to do about New Year's Eve and millennium madness.

That's because Dec. 31 falls on a Friday night, the start of the Jewish Sabbath. Traditional Jewish Sabbath observance rejects the sort of hoopla that for many is synonymous with New Year's Eve -- not to mention the extra partying some feel the new millennium warrants.

For Orthodox and other more ritually observant Jews, questions about what to do this New Year's Eve -- millennium or not -- are a no-brainer. Sabbath comes before all other considerations. Period.

Besides, the new millennium is a Christian concept stemming from the Gregorian calendar's counting of time from the approximate year of Jesus' birth. For religious Jews that pretty much dampens whatever millennium excitement they may feel. As for New Year's, that's Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish calendar's new year, which generally falls in September.

"Millennium shmillennium," said Rabbi Alan Lew, who leads San Francisco's Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom. "By us, it's 5760 (the Hebrew calendar year). We'll celebrate in 240 years."

However, Lew may well be in the minority of American Jews, given the community's increasing assimilation, the prevalence of millennium hype and the cultural significance of New Year's Eve.

Judaism's major synagogue movements have all but conceded that to be the case in statements each crafted to guide their members through the New Year's weekend.

For the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America, the largest Orthodox synagogue umbrella group with more than 800 members, "at issue is the biblical injunction to resist assimilating into the prevailing culture of the country in which we live and its repeated urgings for us to be vigilant in the preservation of our own religious identity."

The organization backed that up by threatening to withdraw the all-important kosher certification of a New York restaurant frequented by Orthodox Jews if it went ahead with a scheduled New Year's-millennium gathering. Israel's Orthodox rabbis also have sought to limit events at the nation's kosher hotels and restaurants -- even when the celebrants would be non-Jewish tourists.

The liberal Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations suggested holding earlier-than-usual Friday evening synagogue services, followed by congregational dinners or study sessions that could last until midnight.

However, it appears the bulk of the movement's 885 congregations plan to call it a night far earlier than midnight, leaving congregants to do their own thing as 2000 begins, said UAHC communications director Emily Grotta.

"The most prevalent model we're seeing is an early (service) and then congregants can do what they want," she said. "Reform Jews are of this world. We expect our congregants to celebrate even though there is no Jewish content there."

Avoiding the term millennium altogether, the middle-of-the-road United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism issued a handbook titled "Shabbat of the Centuries." The movement's more than 800 congregations are encouraged to make the New Year's weekend a "sacred time capsule" spent with family and in Jewish study.

The handbook suggests linking the theme of transition embodied within the start of a new year and millennium with that Sabbath's cyclical liturgical passage. As it happens, "Shabbat Shemot," the opening chapters of the biblical Book of Exodus -- the story of ancient Israel's passage to freedom and its receiving of the Ten Commandments -- coincides with New Year's Day.

Rabbi Moshe Edelman, who co-wrote the handbook, said the document's intent was to stress the importance of the Sabbath, when traditional Jewish law forbids all forms of "work," defined in its strictest sense to include everything from driving a car to turning on an electric switch or spending money.

"I believe that Jews in the Conservative movement who observe `Shabbat' (Hebrew for Sabbath) will observe Shabbat. Whether later they take out a little horn or put on the TV and watch Dick Clark, who knows?" he said.

The Conservative movement, which claims about 1.5 million members, allows individual rabbis broad interpretation within their congregation of what is acceptable ritual observance. Consequently, Conservative congregations have widely varying plans for Dec. 31.

At Adas Israel Congregation, a large synagogue in Washington, D.C., Rabbi Jeffrey A. Wohlberg is planning an early Friday evening prayer service and congregational dinner followed by klezmer music (traditional Eastern European Jewish music) and Israeli folk dancing.

That contrasts with what Adas Israel did on Dec. 31, 1993, the last time New Year's Eve fell on a Friday, when it confined its activity to the Sabbath service. However, this New Year's Eve happens to coincide with the 130th anniversary of the founding of the 1,800-family synagogue.

"When we realized it was also our anniversary, we realized we could legitimately get the congregation together on this night within a Jewish context," he said.

Across the continent, Lew's San Francisco synagogue will offer a decidedly different Dec. 31 experience.

Lew, author of the recently published "One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi" (Kodansha), spent years studying Buddhist meditation prior to returning to his Jewish roots. His leadership of the 600-family congregation reflects that experience.

After a prayer service and congregational dinner, Lew expects that between 50 and 100 of his congregants will join him for more than three hours of Jewish meditation and study, lasting past midnight.

"What I'm offering is a kind of anti-New Year's New Year's," he said. In Alexandria, Va., Conservative Rabbi Jack Moline said he's known what he would be doing on Dec. 31, 1999 since he was 12.

"I looked at a calendar and knew it would fall on a Friday night, Shabbat, and so I knew my partying would be limited," said Moline, who leads Agudas Achim Congregation, a 575-family synagogue. "I can't say I was happy about it.

"But actually, as a middle-aged rabbi today, I'm kind of grateful that it's happening on a Friday night. It's an excuse to do nothing."

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