Teaching Kids about the High Holidays
Practical ways to transmit the beauty of our heritage.
“I’m Jewish too, you know.”
These were the opening words of the passenger sitting next to me on a recent flight. I was returning home from a speaking engagement and in the first few moments of conversation I found out that this father of three was Jewish and that his children had almost zero connection to their roots. Though not at all religious, he had always felt strongly about his Judaism.
“I see this bond lacking in my three girls, though, and I don’t really understand why. It’s not as if I grew up observant, you know.”
“You at least grew up with an image,” I said. “I am sure you had a bubby in your life.”
“Holidays came with traditions and special foods. Maybe you can even remember Shabbat candles and some Hebrew prayer melodies. You have memories that linger deep inside and still touch your heart. But honestly, what have you given your children? The High Holidays are coming. When your girls think of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, what is the picture that pops into their minds?”
My seatmate was silent.
“The truth?” he replied. “We pass the days in temple and count the pages till we’re done. We buy new outfits, socialize with friends, have a terrific break-fast, and say goodbye till next time.”
Without knowledge of traditions and of our past, children have no idea who they are. When we have strong roots, we create an identity. We know where we have come from and where we are going.
“It’s still not too late,” I urged. “Discover your roots, create family traditions, and forge a link back to Sinai. The future of our people depends on you.”
He promised and if he is reading this, I hope that he is reminded to keep his word.
Traditions help us develop a sense of purpose as families. When we establish meaning to our holidays, we create a legacy for the next generation to pass on. We can draw our children closer to Judaism and to our people. We transmit a real and lasting identity.
Engaging Our Kids
Children are naturally curious. They love to explore, to hear, and to ask questions. When Jewish life becomes stale, our kids shut off and feel that Judaism is boring. There is nothing further from the truth. But the inspiration must begin with us. If we approach the High Holidays with dread or indifference, how can we expect joy and excitement from our children?
So here is the problem: too many of us feel disconnected. We think of the holidays as ‘the same old same old.’ We cannot outsource our Judaism to Hebrew schools, teachers or a synagogue experience.
We need to engage our children. We must take responsibility and transmit the beauty of our heritage to our sons and daughters. We are the ones who have been given the privilege to bring these souls into this world; now let us nourish them with faith and traditions.
Making Holidays Relevant to Our Children
1. Rediscover the thrill of traditions
We can reignite the passion by learning more ourselves and not stagnating when it comes to our Judaism. I still feel a sense of excitement every time I study and encounter spiritual wisdom. I love to then share my thoughts with my family. Don’t allow the holidays to pass you by without learning something new, and be sure to have your family become a part of your newfound understanding. Search for articles, attend a workshop, download a class; there are tremendous opportunities for us to study today.
If we repeat the same messages each year without encountering deeper knowledge, our children feel that they have outgrown us. And we, ourselves, are not motivated to grow. We become spiritually frozen in time.
2. Family Activities
When we join together, we bond as a family. We maximize our days and increase our connection. Holidays allow us to enjoy our time as one while strengthening the miniature sanctuary that every Jewish home has potential to become.
Here are a few ideas for children of all ages:
Create holiday cards for friends and family. Our world is so used to emails and texts; no one really takes the time out to write a special message anymore. Imagine the joy you would bring to grandparents, lonely neighbors, and friends and relatives who would appreciate a personal connection. A warm wish for blessings on a homemade card would bring sunshine into the lives of so many.
Think of goals your family can strive for this year. This is a good time for self-reflection. In our fast paced culture many of us do not take the time to stop and think. We can brainstorm ways that would help us grow kinder to each other such as no phones or blackberries at our dinner table; family time will be set aside to talk and hear each other (not all the other people besides the ones we love). We can speak about creating a mitzvah goal such as working on saying our blessings before we eat or reciting the Shema prayer before we go to sleep. We can ban lashon harah, gossip, from our meals and try to become more sensitive to the many times we put others down with realizing the hurt that we are causing.
Establish a tradition of chessed-kindness for your family to do this year. Perhaps you have a neighbor who lives alone. Maybe you have friends who have not yet discovered the beauty of Shabbat. There might be people in your life who are undergoing financial or emotional stress. Wouldn’t an invitation to your Shabbat table or a ‘drop off’ of challah, grape juice and cookies on a Friday make a world of a difference?
You can also engage your children to fill bags with their gently used clothing to help other children in need. Explain to them how much another child will appreciate their warm sweatshirt on a cold winter day or their pretty outfit when they go to school with trendy kids their same age. With just a few moments you can teach your children how they can make a difference in this world.
Every home should possess a tzedakah-charity box. Children can decorate their boxes if they wish. Some families have a tradition of placing 18 pennies in the tzedakah box each Friday before candle lighting. Discuss who you would like to distribute your charity to, this year, when the box is full. Speak about the mitzvah of taking from ones earnings and bar/bat mitzvah money, and giving some to charity. We must always appreciate our gifts from the heavens above and never grow arrogant and forget others in need.
It is a custom to seek out forgiveness as we approach the High Holidays. Verbalize apologies. Do not allow siblings to bear grudges and hold onto anger. This is not the Torah way. Be sure to have children observe parents who begin the year with peace in their hearts. If you have had difficulties with a child this past year, explain that just as we ask God to forgive and allow us to start fresh, we do the same. Bless your children. You will find the parent’s blessings in a prayer book or holiday machzor(special prayer book).
When I was a child, we would always visit my maternal grandparents, my Mama and Zaydah, before the High Holidays. I remember walking through the door and seeing their faces light up. The mood would grow solemn as we would line up in age order so that my grandparents would bless us. Zaydah would place his hands upon my lowered head and I would feel his hot tears as he whispered the words. Under the shelter of his white flowing beard I felt safe. And I knew that I was in the presence of incredible holiness.
Then I would find Mama and she, too, would bless me with her tears. I remember my mother taking her parent’s hands to her lips and kissing them. In Yiddish she would cry out and ask for forgiveness for any hurts caused this past year. Tears would flow freely. We all felt the awesome presence of the High Holidays approaching.
As I come closer to the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, these are the memories that remain embedded within my soul. Many years have passed; I was just a little girl. But I close my eyes and I can still hear the voices of my Mama and Zaydah.
We have within us the power to create memories for the next generation. The question is, when your children look back, what image will they see when the High Holidays appear?