Ease Your Kids Into Holiday Services

I was tired, I was bored and I hated wearing pantyhose. I stood up and sat down at the right times, and even hummed along to the some of the prayers. But in my head I was replaying scenes from my favorite movies and wishing I was home playing video games.

Ah, the High Holidays. The mere words conjure up memories of long services, uncomfortable clothing, endless Hebrew passages, Mom and Dad dozing off, semi-fasting against my will, and, most of all, not quite taking in what the holidays were all about. What can I say? I was a kid.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to make Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur more accessible to your kids. Find out if your synagogue offers special children’s or family services. I remember my childhood synagogue had separate services for kids. Our rabbi would illustrate important holiday concepts by telling entertaining stories about a character he called "Charlie Brownstein." We saw the shofar up close, sang fun songs and sat with our friends. Every Rosh Hashanah, I still wonder whether Charlie Brownstein has been inscribed in the Book of Life.

If your synagogue does not offer such alternatives, keep your child’s limits in mind. If the services are rather lengthy, you might consider taking short breaks with your children, so they aren’t overwhelmed or bored. (I met my closest Hebrew school friends in the bathroom and lobby areas during the High Holidays!) Besides giving your children a breather, these breaks can be an opportunity for them to meet other kids in the Jewish community.

If you feel your children are too young for services, some synagogues offer other kinds of children’s programs. A few years ago, I volunteered to help with one such program. I read holiday-related picture books to a group of rambunctious 6-year-olds. Afterward, all of the volunteers put on a Rosh Hashanah puppet show for the kids, using characters from Disney movies. Who knew that Snow White and Ursula from "The Little Mermaid" were Jewish?

Hebrew-heavy services can be alienating to young kids if they don’t speak the language or know some of the prayers. If you know the prayers, you might try saying or singing them to your kids ahead of time, so they recognize them during the service. As a kid, I can recall singing along to the Shema for the first time and feeling a sense of belonging.

If "dressing up" is an issue, nip it in the bud early. I remember the endless fights my mom had with my little brother, who insisted on wearing jeans and a T-shirt, rather than the adorable suit my mother picked out weeks before. Take your children shopping, and let them have a say in choosing their holiday outfits. Remember, if a garment is itchy or uncomfortable in the store, expect it to be 10 times worse on the big day.

Make the holidays more personal by explaining them to your children. Tell stories from your own childhood memories of synagogue. For Rosh Hashanah, talk about your hopes for the New Year. For Yom Kippur, talk about the things for which you’d like forgiveness. Clearly, you may not want to share all your reflections, but encouraging your children to express some of theirs will help them understand what both holidays are all about.

Create your own holiday rituals. When I was in second grade, a religious-school teacher served my class apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah. She even sang a song about it, which I remember to this day. For Yom Kippur, try breaking the fast with foods your children like, to create a positive association with the holiday.

When it comes to fasting, you probably know what’s best for your children. If they are mature enough to handle the fast, be sure to explain why we fast on Yom Kippur. It’s probably best not to force them to fast, if they are resistant. I was told that I had to fast. The result? I hid in the closet and chowed down a bag of Doritos. I avoided fasting for several years after that because of my resentment. The old "because I said so" doesn’t carry a lot of weight, and kids may rebel, as I did.

Finally, remember that your kids are going to take cues from you. If you zone out or sleep during services, your kids will get the message that the High Holidays are unimportant. Find a way for your children to take an interest in at least one aspect of the holidays, be it the shofar, the food, a song, a charismatic rabbi or talking to God. If you can establish a connection, the High Holidays will become a meaningful and permanent part of your children’s lives.

This is a reprint of a Jewish Journal article published Sept. 14, 2001.