Skip to main content

Getting Comfortable With The High Holidays

As summer ends, the time to begin preparing for the High Holidays begins. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, can seem intimidating holidays to observe for those families with a member new to Judaism and its traditions. In fact, even marginally observant Jews who show up at services just once a year and Jews who have been disengaged from Judaism for a period of time can feel overwhelmed by the High Holy Days’ crowded, lengthy and unfamiliar services.

“Walking into a synagogue once or even twice a year at the High Holidays is often why so many interfaith families feel disconnected from Judaism,” says Suzette A. Cohen, former director of programs for Pathways: The Interfaith Family Network of Greater Atlanta, Ga., a community initiative presented by the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta and funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

Rather than feeling overwhelmed by Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur services, this year, approach these awesome holiday observances in ways that allow you to fill what could be empty observances with both meaning and spirit. This will make going to services and observing and sharing these holidays with your family members (whether Jewish or not) both meaningful and spiritual experiences.

The first step to accomplishing this feat involves actual preparation. Many synagogues, organizations and Jewish community centers offer “getting-ready-for-the-high-holiday” workshops or classes. According to Cohen, “These offer the best way to learn about the holidays and what to expect at services. They also may offer information on how to prepare children or offer children’s programming as well.”

High Holiday services represent a hard entry point into Judaism for anyone. Therefore, Cohen encourages families to attend other synagogue services first. Since so many congregants only attend services at this time of year, crowds at services are huge, and rabbis or temple presidents often take advantage of this opportunity to ask for monetary donations, volunteer commitments and to pressure congregants to come to services more often. All of these things can make newbie temple-goers uncomfortable — not to mention the Hebrew language barrier and unfamiliarity with the service itself.

“As far as spirituality, the High Holidays can be a challenging time of year to feel connected and inspired,” Cohen admits. “I always encourage my interfaith families to experience a peaceful Shabbat, attend tot Shabbat services or to go to the ‘getting-ready-for-the-High-Holidays classes’ so they can understand the rubrics of the service, see an actual Torah, ask relevant questions, etc. … Shabbat is a great and easier way to begin the journey into the synagogue.”

Plus, this gives interfaith families a chance to meet other congregation members and other interfaith families. Then, when you arrive at services, you will see familiar faces. You can even make plans to meet your new friends at services and sit together.

If you haven’t managed to attend Shabbat services or a High Holiday preparation class, however, adults and teenagers can prepare by attending a Selichot service, which Cohen says are less-well attended, shorter and tend to be more thought-provoking and spiritual than other Yom Kippur services. Held late, sometimes at 11 p.m. or midnight, at least three days before Rosh Hashanah, this service focuses on the petitionary prayers used in the Yom Kippur liturgy, and provides a preview of Yom Kippur.

For families with young children, Debbie Antonoff, Director of Pathways: The Interfaith Family Network of Greater Atlanta, recommends beginning with a High Holy Day family service. These services offer an appropriate way to introduce yourself and your children to the form of the High Holiday services and provide an opportunity to “learn through and with your children,” says Antonoff. “See this as your practice session, and as you become more comfortable, you can move into the adult or main services.” Also, since in most cases they don’t require temple membership, they offer a chance to attend a service without paying for tickets, which can sometimes be an expensive — and off-putting — proposition for young families.

The Tashlich service, which is held during the first day of Rosh Hashanah, offers another opportunity to begin learning about Yom Kippur and doing the work of repentance as a family as well. This service involves visiting your nearest body of water and symbolically atoning by throwing crumbs, which represent sins, into the water. Children especially relate to this ritual. Antonoff relates, “Our girls began thinking, ‘Cool, we feed the ducks in the river on the holiday!’ Needless to say, we explained about using the bread we throw into the river to represent the inappropriate things or behaviors we did over the past year.”

If your congregation has a Tashlich service, take advantage of the chance to gather with community in a much smaller group than at the other Yom Kippur services. If not, you can go as a family to a body of water and ask your children: Where did you “miss the mark” in how you treated someone or how you behaved? For each missed mark, each person throws a piece of bread into the water. This provides an easily-understandable way to teach children the concept of sin. You can then ask them how they will do better next year.

If you choose to go to a full length Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur service, Rabbi G. Rayzel Raphael, former rabbinic director of InterFaithways: The Interfaith Family Support Network of Greater Philadelphia, an interfaith outreach program, suggests bringing a book with you to synagogue that talks about the High Holidays, its themes and the service. “This should be a book that informs you about what is going on around you, so when you are feeling a bit lost you can refer to it or read it without feeling the pressure of having to understand, participate and experience the actual service until you are ready or have absorbed some of what the holiday is about.” At the same time, you can be there at the service absorbing and experiencing as much of the service as you want.” (You could take a copy of 18Doors’s own Guide to the High Holidays.)

In addition, if you find yourself bored, lost, confused, or generally not understanding what is going on while at High Holiday services, Raphael says, don’t feel as if you have to follow the service itself. Instead, “Do your inner work. I see Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as time set aside out of the normal cycle of the year to reflect on your life and what will make you a better person,” she says. “It’s a time to review your past year and make new goals for this coming year. So, see your time in the synagogue as a spiritual retreat.”

Nina Amir Lacey

Nina Amir Lacey is a freelance journalist, nonfiction editor and the author of several booklets about practical spirituality, human potential and personal growth from Jewish perspective. She sees herself as an “everywoman” and her work as crossing religious and spiritual lines. She also serves as the spirituality and holiday expert on Conversations with Ms. Claus, a weekly podcast downloaded by 85,000 listeners each month in 90 different countries and offered on You can learn more about Nina at Pure Spirit Creations.