December 8, 2019

Teens Talk Teshuvah During the High Holy Days

When it comes to teshuvah on Yom Kippur, what does it mean to truly atone for our sins? Who do we apologize to? Will that person accept our apology? Will someone who hurt us apologize? How can we ensure we don’t repeat our mistakes?

Adults are told to answer these questions but what about teenagers? After their b’nai mitzvahs, they are required to fully engage in services, especially during the High Holy Days.

Now more than ever it’s important to talk to teens about teshuvah and the High Holy Days so it can become a personal journey for them, Open Temple Rabbi Lori Shapiro told the Journal. 

“After [the b’nai mitzvahs] we set teens off into the commencement of the Jewish adult spiritual journey [and] it’s just the first step,” Shapiro said. “High Holy Days [are] our annual alarm clock setting to check in and ask the question: ‘How am I doing?’ … It becomes a great opportunity for parents to engage teens in that conversation.”

Shapiro works with teens year round to integrate Judaism into their everyday lives and said, “We need to offer them a safe space to explore [Jewish themes] on their own.”

Ann Mizrahi, a senior at de Toledo High School, told the Journal she loves the High Holy Days because they enable her to spend time with her family and feel connected to renewal and Teshuvah. 

“I want to go into the New Year with the idea that those little moments mean so much and to channel that into helping our world and change it for the better and for those around me,” she said, adding that although  “we’re younger, that doesn’t mean we feel different toward the holidays. People look down on the younger generation because they think we don’t have enough experience or care enough but that isn’t the case. If people change their attitude, they can learn more and understand what the High Holy Days mean to us and what Judaism means to us.” 

Adam Sina, a senior at Milken Community High School, told the Journal that his appreciation for the High Holy Days has grown over the years because “the holidays remind me to think about my actions each day, and the implications of what I’m doing and how it affects others.” 

He also takes the responsibility of teshuvah seriously by making an effort to approach friends whom he’s hurt during the year. He said it’s impactful for parents and religious leaders to ask if teens are “having a meaningful High Holy Days like, mentally present throughout the services. … That way, you’re not just sitting in services for the sake of sitting in services. You’re actually there to think and be involved.” 

Another de Toledo senior — Noa Blonder — told the Journal she’s always had a positive experience attending High Holy Day services at Nashuva because her family encouraged her to think and grow. Her family also has a tradition of hiking trails and taking part in tashlich.

She also feels that it’s important to remember teshuvah is all about returning to your “purest, holiest, best self. Betraying ourselves and others is seemingly unavoidable, everyone makes mistakes,” Blonder said, “but one of the biggest mistakes we make is betraying ourselves because it’s so easy to become a traitor to your own body and soul and dismiss yourself from self-love. I’m really thankful that the Jewish religion gives us a chance to repent and reflect on where we went wrong in the past year and what we can do in the upcoming year.”

“People look down on the younger generation because they think we don’t have enough experience or care enough but that isn’t the case. If people change their attitude they can learn more and understand what the High Holy Days mean to us.” 

YULA Boys High School senior Ben Simon attends services at the Chabad in Tarzana and said the High Holy Days offer him relief from his hectic school life. 

“With the pressure of classes and college applications, we can step away from that for a second and step into our relationship with God,” he said. “Teshuvah can be an amazing and unique opportunity because no matter what you’ve done during the year, you can wipe it clean and start over. It’s something I always hope to take full advantage of. It’s very important to me.” 

He added that hearing the shofar during services really puts him into a “retrospective” state where he can think about “who I am as a person and what I’ve done and how I can make teshuvah for the following year.” 

Chloe Messian from Milken Community High School said her experience going into Yom Kippur this year will differ from years past because her recent trip to Israel gave her new meaning.

“I just got back from studying in Israel and it opened my eyes to Judaism in the spiritual sense instead of just learning about the laws in school,” Messian, who attends services at Stephen Wise Temple, said. “Sometimes when I was younger, I used to dread going to services just because I thought it was boring and I couldn’t find a connection, but after going to Israel and connecting to the land, I feel like this year will be different.”

Yaakov Willner, a senior at YULA, said attending services and feeling connected to Judaism always has been one and the same for him. His advice for those who find it difficult to immerse themselves in the holidays is to make it personal.

“Whatever denomination you come from, the High Holy Days are important. Try to fit yourself in the equation. Don’t just do it because you have to and it’s tradition, even though that’s a very powerful thing. Put yourself into it because it could help you in everything else.”