At sundown on September 15, Rosh Hashana — the Jewish new year — begins. This is a festive time filled with family, food, prayer, and reflection. We reflect on the past year and hope for a year filled with blessings. We hear the sound of the shofar, we eat apples and honey, and there are many songs to sing. There are so many ways to engage children, especially when we incorporate the idea of it being the “birthday of the world” (hello, birthday cake!). It is the beginning of the 10 “Days of Awe,” which culminate with Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement.
As is telling by its name, the Day of Atonement is a somber day. Traditionally, Jews are in synagogue for a lot of the day, and those who are over 12 or 13 and are healthy enough to do so do not eat or drink for 25 hours. As a kid, I remember the day being absolutely dreadful as I counted the minutes on the clock and the pages in the prayer book until it was over.
Now, as a mom, I’ve made it my goal to make Yom Kippur less grueling and more enjoyable — or at least meaningful. One thing that helps is belonging to a synagogue with a fabulous kids service. It gives the kids a space to sing, move, hear stories, and derive some meaning from Yom Kippur. I find meaning in the kids service, too!
One of the main themes of Yom Kippur is asking forgiveness. The book “I’m Sorry, Grover” is a great way to start the discussion. In the weeks leading up to Yom Kippur, I remind my daughters about this book and call out times we get to say sorry. On Yom Kippur, we ask her what she is sorry for and tell her things we’re sorry for. Using our buddy Grover to help, we talk about how it feels to say sorry and how it feels to hear it.
Clearly, my young children are not going to fast on Yom Kippur. But they do have a technology fast. This means no TV, no iPad, no FaceTime, no phone calls, and no battery-operated toys. Yom Kippur is a day to be connected with those around us, to connect with ourselves, and to connect with God. Sure, my kids are often feeling the void of tech more than their connection with God. But, at the very least, they are learning that the day is different, and they are building a connection with the Jewish people as a whole in marking this day as separate and holy.
Some families spend time in nature to feel the awe of something greater than themselves. Whatever your ritual, you are teaching your child that this day matters.
Another tradition on Yom Kippur is to give charity. Many people bring food to synagogue to donate to a food bank. This is particularly poignant on Yom Kippur. Not only are we teaching to give to others, we are teaching to give to others even when we are not having ourselves. Last year, my daughter got so much joy out of choosing the best food to give, and she dropped off the food with such pride. We spent time talking about different needs in the world, and different ways to help people meet those needs. Maybe part of your Yom Kippur will be spent thinking of injustice and imbalance in the world. Maybe it will be spent planning a volunteer project for during the year.
Let’s face it — Yom Kippur is a hard day. We are struggling to think about things we have done over the year that we regret. We are asking for forgiveness, we are focusing on our mortality, and we are feeling small and humble. At the same time, we are still trying to parent and tend to our children’s physical and emotional needs. It is a long day on so many levels.
And, yet, our children are watching and listening. We owe it to them, and we owe it to ourselves to help them find some meaning and some value in the day. And, in helping our kids find meaning in Yom Kippur, it can help us find more meaning in the day.