Author Archives: Sarah Gershman

Sarah Gershman

About Sarah Gershman

Sarah Gershman is a Teaching Fellow at the Partnership for Jewish Living and Learning in Rockville, MD. Sarah is the president of Green Room Speakers.

Parashah for Preschoolers

The Torah seems to begin with preschoolers in mind. The story of the creation of the world in Genesis 1 is full of concrete images and simple repetition, and it has a plot that is easy for kids to follow.

As the weeks move forward, however, it can be harder to engage young children with the parashah, the weekly Torah portion. Even in the colorful stories of Genesis, characters make strange and disturbing choices. Later, the plot drifts altogether into a maze of technical details about building the Tabernacle and offering sacrifices.
parashah learning for preschoolers
Despite these obstacles, parents and children even as young as three years old can actively participate in a discussion about the parashah.

Why bother?

There are several reasons. First, establishing a weekly routine of parashah study when children are still little sets the stage for more sophisticated discussions in the years to come. By the time kids are old enough to engage more deeply in the text, they will already be familiar with the major characters and themes. Further, this is an activity that parents and children can do together–with learning taking place on both sides. And finally, the stories and themes throughout the Torah provide a wonderful launching point for talking about some of the most fundamental issues in children’s lives.

As a general rule, in parashah discussions try to focus on one specific incident or passage. While the Torah contains a tremendous number of characters, laws, and stories, below are four central themes that arise over and over. Each week, look through the parashah, and try to relate it to one of these themes. This can help focus your discussion with young children, who learn best through repetition and will be happy to identify the same recurring themes from week to week.

Theme 1: Opposites

Young children readily connect to opposites–and the Torah is full of them.

In the six days of creation (Parashat Bereshit), God sets up opposites: Light and darkness, heaven and earth, land and sea, etc.

This theme continues throughout the Torah as many other opposites are explored. We are introduced to opposite people, like Jacob, a man who dwells in his tent and Esau, a hunter (Genesis 25:19-28:9, in Parashat Toldot). Opposite behaviors–good and bad–and their consequences are also a prominent theme (see, for example, Deuteronomy 23, in Parashat Ki Tavo). Permitted vs. forbidden activities can also be presented as opposites, for example the rules about foods that can and cannot be eaten in Leviticus 11, Parashat Shemini.  Even opposite times–the holiness of Shabbat contrasts with the rest of the working week–can be explored (for example, in Deuteronomy 5:12-14, Parashat Va’et’hanan).

High Holiday Services with Kids

High Holiday services have the potential to be the spiritual climax of the year–an opportunity for communal and personal reflection and growth. Yet, for many adults, the long hours in synagogue feel overwhelming and foreign. It can be difficult to understand what is happening, let alone to find meaning.

These challenges are complicated further when you bring children into the picture. Parents are often faced with some difficult choices about High Holiday services:

high holiday kids service

Find a service that engages your child.

·    If I bring my young children into synagogue with me, will it be disruptive to others and stressful to keep them quiet?

·    If I choose instead to attend a tot service with my children, how can I have a meaningful personal experience?

·    Will it be better for older children to sit in services with me or attend a junior congregation?

With a little thought and preparation, though, it is possible to take ownership of the holidays and craft a synagogue experience that is meaningful for you and a good fit for your family.

Choosing a Service

If you don’t already belong to a synagogue, or if you are not satisfied with the places you’ve prayed in the past, the High Holidays can be a perfect time to “shul shop.” For a helpful guide, you might look at this article on “How to Choose a Synagogue”.

When calling synagogues to learn about different options, it’s good to ask about the synagogue’s attitude towards having children in the adult services. The more you know what to expect, the better your experience will be.

Ask direct questions about what types of children’s programming will be available. Often synagogues have special programs for kids of different ages just for the High Holidays. For example, there may be a tot service for toddlers, which parents are encouraged or required to attend. A good tot service engages both kids and adults and is meaningful, fun, participatory, and most of all, age-appropriate. It may include movement, puppets, toy shofars, and plenty of singing.

Making Hanukkah With Children Meaningful

When is Hanukkah 2015? Click here to find out!

For more ideas on celebrating Hanukkah with children, check out our partner site Kveller.

Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas can complicate the holiday. For those who try to make Hanukkah more like Christmas, it inevitably seems to fall short. Yet while Hanukkah was traditionally not one of the most central holidays of the Jewish calendar, it can, nonetheless offer many opportunities for fun and joyous celebration. Here are some suggestions for how you can make this Hanukkah memorable, while still staying true to the essential meaning of the holiday.

Bringing Light out of Darkness

There are many ways to make this year’s Hanukkah a real “Festival of Light.” As Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes in his book, Seasons of Joy, “Hanukkah is the moment when light is born from darkness, hope from despair.” Historically, this was reflected in the unlikely victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks, in the oil that brought light for eight days instead of one, and in the very act of lighting candles during the darkest time of the year.

Before lighting candles, try taking your family on a night walk. Go outside together and feel how dark it is. Even in the city, the month of December has a special darkness to it. Then come in from the cold and light the hanukkiah (menorah).  Feel the contrast between the darkness outside and the light inside.

The oil in the Temple menorah–which was only enough for one day but miraculously lasted for eight–can be understood as an early example of energy conservation! One year, COEJL, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life sponsored a special program called “How Many Jews Does It Take to Change a Bulb?” The organization is helping Jewish institutions, families, and individuals purchase and install energy efficient, cost effective compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs during the week of Hanukkah. See for more information.

Hanukkah is also a wonderful time to bring light into the lives of those around us. The winter months can be especially difficult for those who need help. Why not take come time this holiday to volunteer as a family at a local soup kitchen, shelter, or any place that is meaningful to you? Often, Jewish homes for the aged have Hanukkah parties or communal hanukkiah lightings. These are opportunities to connect your children with the older generation and help make the celebration more festive for the residents.

Sukkot for Families

When is Sukkot 2015? Click here to find out.  

After the more somber holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot bursts through our doors as the Jewish holiday of unbridled happiness, z’man simhateinu (the time of our joy). Here are a few suggestions for how to make Sukkot fun for your whole family–a time to create wonderful family traditions, rituals, and memories.

Building the Sukkah

children in a sukkah

While building your own sukkah may seem like an overwhelming proposition, it can actually be a fun family project–and a relatively simple one at that. If you have the space and the inclination, consider ordering an easy, ready-to-assemble sukkah from a website such as The Sukkah Center or Sukkah Depot.

Building a sukkah is one of the few mitzvot (commandments) that involve the whole body. This can be a great bonding experience for everyone, especially in the crisp fall air. Find ways for each family member to get involved. Older children can help with the heavy building, while the younger ones can help gather tools and decorate.

READ: How to Build a Sukkah

If you are unable to build your own sukkah, there are plenty of opportunities to participate in the building and/or decorating of a community sukkah. Often synagogues organize family sukkah decorating events. Or you might ask a family friend who builds a sukkah if your family can lend a hand.

Time for “Home Decorating”

The Torah commands us to “dwell” in the sukkah. For the week of the holiday, the Sukkah becomes our home, and unlike our permanent homes–where the parents most likely do the interior decorating–Sukkot can be a fun opportunity for kids to help make decorating decisions. Your sukkah can be an ideal place to display your children’s artwork, for example.

Kids can choose a theme for the sukkah. The theme could be holiday related or not. I know one family who decided to have a “Global Sukkah” and decorated their sukkah with pictures from all over the world. Another family had a “Dora the Explorer” sukkah and made pictures of all the Dora characters. They had different parts of the sukkah represent different Dora adventure places such as Crocodile Lake and Spooky Forest.