As the high holidays approach, we are reminded that there are so many meaningful Jewish moments to celebrate. Within the joy and ruach (spirit) of holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah, lies the solemn and serious Yom Kippur. There are a myriad of ways to make Yom Kippur meaningful for young children, for whom especially, Yom Kippur is not an easy holiday to understand.
Over the years, I have found creative and thoughtful ways that have worked well with young children to help them begin to understand the importance of the holiday. As parents, there are many things to consider when thinking about the best and most accessible ways to teach the values of the holiday to our children. For every family, the answers to the questions below will be different, yet important to consider based on your own family values:
- Why do we celebrate Yom Kippur?
- What do we do on Yom Kippur?
- Which ritual objects or symbols do we associate with the holiday?
- What songs or stories do we sing or retell?
One of the central themes of Yom Kippur is the concept of atonement and the act of apologizing to those we may have hurt or wronged during the past year. In preschools, young children are often taught to use the words "I'm sorry" if they hurt a friend either physically or with their communication. What can become problematic, however, is that these two words are said so often that their true meaning and intention get lost. Yom Kippur provides an opportunity to help preschoolers to better understand what it means to truly feel "sorry" about a situation.
One way we highlight what it means to feel sorry is to model for the children a variety of tangible situations using role-play, i.e., knocking down a friend's tower or putting hands on another person's body without permission. The goal of the exercise is to highlight unwanted behavior, and then to model the ways in which we can use our words to say, "I'm sorry," and to talk about what could be done differently the next time; I'm sorry I bit you, Lucy. Next time I will use my words before my hands." An adult teacher might follow up with a reminder such as, "Hands are not for hitting, hands are for helping."
Try Using Puppets
Using puppets to act out situations that demonstrate repentance allows young children to see both sides of a situation more clearly than if they or a peer are involved. Additionally, puppetry allows for more time for reflection outside of a real-time situation. It allows children to play out different scenarios and outcomes that highlight the ways in which we can apologize and try to do better the next time. With puppets, children and grownups alike can talk about the things they did in the past year and ways to make better choices in the new year. These discussions also present an opportunity to talk more positively about what we want to do to improve our behavior in the new year.
In my work, I have seen children using puppets to act out situations of repentance numerous times over the years. From a child's perspective, using puppets (or dolls) to talk about big feelings allows children to see, and hopefully understand, how their actions affect others. It is the repair that comes from saying "I'm sorry" that can have a lasting effect on a child's actions going forward.
Make Your Own Shofar
For our little ones, the sound of the shofar is often something to look forward to on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Because the shofar is such an important symbol, I have had a lot of fun making shofarim in my own home. Simple party blowers can be covered with cardstock paper and decorated by children with stickers and markers. You can also bring these homemade ritual objects to your synagogue so that your child(ren) feel included in the holiday.
In my own congregation, the children are allowed and encouraged to blow their own horns at designated times. The shofar blast serves as a wake-up call for all Jews to think about ways we can be kinder and more aware of our own behavior in the year to come. In a toddler classroom I was in a few years ago, the teachers kept the shofarim out and available to children all year round. Long after Yom Kippur was over, the children would use their homemade horns as a signal to one another that a situation occurred where an apology was necessary. The teachers then had the opportunity to reinforce class values of kindness and empathy.
Year after year, my children look for the homemade shofarim they made when they were little. While they may not bring them to synagogue anymore, they do like to blow the horns and remind us to "wake up" to the holiday and it's deeper meaning to us all.
Our traditions may change, but the central themes have remained with our family as the years go by. I hope you find the magic in these small moments of the holiday that can have a lasting impact on our children that stay with them long after Yom Kippur has ended.