Bring the Joy of Judaism into Your Home
Don't just celebrate the heavy Jewish holidays. Sukkot and Simchat Torah show us a joyous side of Judaism that you'll want your family to experience.
Are we Jewish parents celebrating the wrong Jewish holidays? Most Jewish parents I know, myself included, want to give our kids an appreciation and love of our religion. We want them to have a sense of community and history. We want our kids to love being Jewish.
So many parents go to extraordinary lengths to help foster a sense of Jewishness in their families during the High Holidays. Kids stay home from school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We join synagogues and buy tickets for the High Holidays.
But by focusing on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we’re missing out on other joyous Jewish holidays in this season and giving our kids a misleadingly stern and guilt-heavy sense of what being Jewish is all about. Kids need to experience the joy of Judaism in order to fall in love with it.
Here are four reasons why Sukko tand Simchat Torah is tailor-made for family celebrations, and ways Sukkot and Simchat Torah can help kids love to be Jewish.
Time of Our Joy
Sukkot is called Zman Simchateinu, or the “Time of Our Joy”. Sitting in a beautiful sukkah, eating outside, having holiday meals with friends and family - so many of the mitzvot of Sukkot are designed to spark a feeling of well-being and happiness.
Building a sukkah is a big undertaking and it can feel daunting to find a sukkah to eat in or a Sukkot holiday meal to be invited to. While many schools let students take off days for the High Holidays, Sukkot is less widely known and it can feel harder to find the time to celebrate.
But the energy we parents put into making sure that our kids appreciated Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can carry us through Sukkot too. If you don’t have a sukkah handy, consider building one of your own this year. (New, ready-made pop-up sukkahs are now available on the market and can be assembled by just one person.) Call your local synagogue or Jewish Community Center and ask about community meals and celebrations. It may be a perfect time to enjoy a meal with an observant family living nearby who would relish the opportunity of hachnasat orchim, having guests. Sitting outside in a beautifully decorated sukkah, sharing food, and singing (another integral part of Sukkot meals) creates a magical feeling for kids and adults alike, that you won’t want to miss.
Sukkot engages all of our senses, providing a multisensory learning experience.
On Sukkot, we sit in beautifully decorated sukkahs, enjoying the feel of the sun and the breeze on our faces. We smell the fragrant etrog, grasp the four species of plants that the Torah commands us to gather into a bundle and shake in six directions (symbolizing that God exists everywhere, in all directions).
Like so much in Judaism, there are always new layers to peel back and beautiful, hidden meanings to explore. The four species we shake on Sukkot are said to symbolize four different types of Jews, from the most righteous and learned to the least involved. On Sukkot we grasp them together to symbolize that all Jews are one family. Each day in the sukkah, it’s traditional to recall one ancestor from the Torah whom we symbolically invite to our meals. There are special songs and prayers on Sukkot, each helping us engage with the holiday in different ways.
Sukkahs recall the small huts that our ancient ancestors lived in following the Exodus from Egypt, when we wandered in the desert for 40 years. Living in these tiny huts, open to the elements, reminds us in a visceral way that we are dependent on God. During the rest of the year, when we dwell inside our heated and air-conditioned homes, it can be easy to lull ourselves into a sense of security, feeling that we’re responsible for our own well-being.
The beauty of Sukkot is that it turns this thinking on its head. For eight days (seven days inside Israel), we spend time out of doors, acutely aware of the elements. It’s a reminder that, in reality, every aspect of our lives is dependent on the Divine. In today’s world where it can be a struggle to instill a sense of gratitude in our children, Sukkot can be a timely lesson in how blessed we truly are. You don’t need to have your own dedicated sukkah to experience this feeling: try joining a holiday meal in a synagogue or Jewish community center for an al fresco experience in spending time outside, appreciating the blessing of being alive in a brand new way.
Sense of History
I teach Hebrew School and every year I ask my students what are the most important Jewish holidays. They have never correctly identified them. In addition to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the weekly holiday of Shabbat, there are three major festivals each year: Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot.
In ancient times, Jews from all over the Land of Israel used to congregate in Jerusalem for these three festivals; they’d offer sacrifices to God and share holiday feasts. Sukkot was an especially wonderful holiday: every night of Sukkot, tens of thousands of people celebrated in the streets of Jerusalem, singing songs of praise to God, dancing and listening to music. Then, when morning broke, our ancestors would walk to a spring just outside the city and bring sweet clear water back to the Temple in Jerusalem as another offering to God, appreciating the miracle of having fresh water to drink.
It’s still customary for Jews to try and make the week of Sukkot an especially fun and joyous time, even now thousands of years later. By celebrating Sukkot today, we’re drawing a line directly from our ancestors in the time of the Torah to us today, ensuring that we and our children are part of an unbroken chain going back generations. It’s a powerful lesson to send to our kids, and helps them realize that they are the next link in this chain called the Jewish people.
Sukkot culminates in another wonderful holiday, Simchat Torah, when we complete the yearly cycle of Torah reading and immediately start the cycle anew. Simchat Torah shows us just how much fun we can have inside the synagogue. It's a time of energetic dancing and singing. Chairs are cleared away and people take turns dancing while holding the Torah scrolls. There’s a plethora of candy for kids and adults alike. Some synagogues have festive dinners on Erev Simchat Torah (the evening it begins) or lavish Kiddush spreads on the morning of the holiday.
It’s not easy to gear up for another round of Jewish holidays right after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For many of us, missing work and school a real challenge. But if we want our kids to really love being Jewish, Sukkot and Simchat Torah are incredible opportunities. This year consider making room for both. This year, consider making plans for Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Your kids will love it (and so will you).