How To Make The High Holy Days Meaningful For Kids

No matter what kind of Jew you call yourself, just about everybody shows up for services on the High Holy Days.

Sanctuaries that barely need three rows of seats during the rest of the year require rows of additional folding chairs during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

As one rabbi put it to the throng of rarely seen congregants when Rosh Hashanah landed on a Saturday, “It’s nice to see you all here, considering it’s Shabbos.”

The crowds also mean lots of children—from nearly newborns to teen-agers. The result many times is disruption. Noise is bad enough for people who know their way around a prayer book. But on the High Holy Days, the prayer book is different. Some of the crowd is unfamiliar with any service and even regulars sometimes strain to remember practices performed and prayers recited only at this one special time of year.

What to do? Where possible, make the services more meaningful for children. And the responsibility is a joint one of the parents, the congregation and its religious school.

Here are some things families can do:

No matter how old your children are, take them to the synagogue. They should be comfortable there, listening to the melodies and sounds of prayer. And they should also learn at an early age what is expected of them in the sanctuary.

Prepare for the High Holy Days. One comic described the difference between various religions as “food with different holidays.” But we know it’s more than that. And if you don’t do some preparation—as a family, a congregation or even as an individual—you’re missing out. Being a scholar is not required. And don’t just do it for your children. Use it as a refresher for yourself. The more you know, the more meaningful the High Holy Days will be.

Get a book about holiday observances and rituals and find out what you’ve been missing or try to understand a little bit more about what you’ve been doing all these years. Then discuss it as a family. Include the children who should be soaking up Jewish learning in Hebrew school. Learn together.

Make something different for the holiday meals this year. And involve the entire family in deciding on the menu and preparing the food. Ashkenazic Jews might try something from Sephardic tradition. And find out the story behind the new dishes and how they relate to the holiday.

Go to Selichot services. Many synagogues use this late-night or midnight service as a preview or dry run of the High Holy Day season. Congregations will hold discussions about the upcoming holidays. Some present Jewish films before the service and include refreshments or a meal. In other shuls, cantors will try out new melodies and have time to teach them to congregants. It’s an opportunity to refresh your recollection of High Holy Day traditions and ease into the season.

Here are some things congregations can do:

Plan child care and baby care during High Holy Day services. Almost nothing disturbs the mood of a service more than a screaming child.

Explain the holidays and traditions to children. This can be through Hebrew school or day school classes, a special pre-holiday synagogue program for children or with a mailing to parents about how to share the information with their children. One synagogue teaches children how to blow a shofar and a Jewish day school has a demonstration about how the rams’ horns are made into the familiar ceremonial object.

Plan activities and discussions for children of different age groups, while mom and dad are in the main sanctuary. Running a program for 3- to 12-year-olds just won’t work. Split them up and design an activity, a discussion, a lesson or a story appropriate for that group.

Make sure children of all ages are brought into services at key or more interesting points. For example, hearing the blasts of the shofar usually gets the attention of children of any age. But it’s even more meaningful if your program spent some time explaining what the shofar is, how it is blown and the significance of the notes sounded and the number of blasts.

Families and congregations must make an effort to show children why the High Holy Days are not only important, but fun. If children, like adults, have some knowledge of what’s going on in services, they’ll concentrate on it. They get more out of it and possibly even enjoy it.

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