Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur–aren’t exactly tailor-made for kids. The truth is, it is a very adult-focused series of holidays and at first glance might seem irrelevant or even oppressive to children under the age of 13. But the theme of looking ahead to the new year, when we have the opportunity to do better, is a great lesson to share with kids of all ages. And the gravity and excitement of these two Jewish holidays—when synagogues all over the world are filled beyond capacity—can be very meaningful for kids.
The High Holy Days, also known as Yamin Nora’im (Days of Awe), encompass the period of 10 days that begins with Rosh Hashanah (literally the “Head of the Year,” the Jewish New Year), continues through the Days of Repentance and ends with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). This whole period is a time of serious soul-searching and contemplation. It is a time to reflect and resolve to turn away from the wrongdoings of the previous year.
These Jewish holidays are impressive in their solemnity and sheer size. In addition to special meals and attention from family and friends, if you attend synagogue, your kids will notice the crowds and expanded size of the sanctuary, they will hear different music and see new people. The annual beginning-of-school excitement will become associated with the start of the Jewish year. For kids who attend secular schools, if they miss school to observe these Jewish holidays, that will connote their importance.
As children grow, they understand more about the themes of the liturgy and grapple with the powerful stories in the Torah readings. But even for very young children, participating in the Jewish community’s biggest convocations—amid mixed generations, from infants to grandparents—can lead them to feel that they belong to a Jewish community that is big and vital.
How to Celebrate: These holidays are an important family moment and there are many ways to observe them. If you have very small children, you might find a variety of “tot” services or family services. You may choose to bring your baby and/or toddler to the sanctuary. Just be aware that these services are longer than a typical Shabbat service and it is your call whether your young child will be able to stay fairly quiet while you are there.
Know Before You Go: Synagogues vary in the quality of babysitting and early childhood programs for children. Even if good care is available in your synagogue, some children will not tolerate being left with others if they know that a parent is on the premises. Sometimes hiring a babysitter at home or taking a toddler to her regular daycare is the best option, especially if parents want to participate in the service. Besides, some children are too sensitive to the noise and crush of a big crowd to be anything but miserable in the synagogue.
If you aren’t sure how your baby will react and want to try bringing him or her to synagogue, be prepared to leave if he or she gets fussy. If you can let go of expectations of what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are “supposed” to be like, you may find a different religious experience in the lobby with the nursing mothers, or watching your child run around the synagogue’s playground.
How to Celebrate: Preschool-age children may enjoy parts of the service. If you are familiar with Shabbat services, you can point out how different the music is, and how the Torah is “dressed up,” with special covers, just as the people are especially dressed up. On Rosh Hashanah, the crowd tends to be upbeat and festive, great for people watching. Remark on all the different faces, the different ways there are to “look Jewish.”
During Rosh Hashanah, we eat apples and honey together in the hopes for a sweet new year and many synagogues provide this treat at the end of the service. You’ll have the opportunity to share this with your kids, even if you end up spending more time out of the sanctuary.
Be Prepared: If you bring your own snacks, be sure to serve them outside the sanctuary. It’s especially important to keep food out of the synagogue on Yom Kippur; children should eat at home, or outside of the synagogue, out of consideration for those who are fasting.
As children mature, parents can offer synagogue as reward for coming-of-age. You know your child best, and know what might work with them. Try something like, “Now that you can read Hebrew so well, I think you can stay in the service a little longer.” Or, “I think you’re old enough to come to Kol Nidre with us.”
Some of the concepts of the Jewish High Holy Days may be too complex for this stage, but the holidays do offer an opportunity to talk about growing and changing, and about the importance of saying “I’m sorry” to people and to God. Tashlich is a great way to teach this lesson during Rosh Hashanah. The ritual consists of visiting a body of moving water, such as a lake, river or ocean where we symbolically cast off our sins by throwing duck-friendly foods into the water (instead of bread, try rice, lettuce or grapes).
Many communities have a special spot for tashlich, but you can do it wherever you like. If you choose to spend your Rosh Hashanah at home, rather than synagogue, tashlich can be a great option to connect with your community or with friends and family.
The High Holy Days are a dynamic kick off to the Jewish year. There are many opportunities to share the themes and practices of these holidays with your whole family and make each year memorable for everyone.
This cheat sheet was adapted from How to Raise a Jewish Child: A Practical Handbook for Family Life by Anita Diamant and Karen Kushner.