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:
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.
Many synagogues offer babysitting–without Jewish programming–instead of or alongside tot services. This allows parents to drop off their kids and spend some time in the main adult services.
For school-age children, many synagogues offer programming by grade level including junior congregation and/or teen services. Kids generally attend these without their parents. An ideal program takes its role seriously and gives kids space for communal prayer and learning, while also preparing them to become active participants in adult services. For example, one teen service at a synagogue in Florida focused on the theme of silence, in a year that Rosh Hashanah occured on Shabbat, when the shofar is not blown. The group discussed biblical and contemporary texts on silence, and invited teens to participate in silent meditation.
Lastly, some synagogues offer family services, which parents, children, and other family members are encouraged to attend together. These services highlight main prayers and liturgy, and often include lots of music and stories. At one family service in California, the facilitator told the story of the naming of Isaac, which is read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Parents in the group were asked to speak about why they chose their children’s names. As you research your synagogue and service options, you might want to ask about creative approaches like this.
The Big Days
Traditional High Holiday services are long, often lasting from four to six hours. It’s important to map out a plan for the family each day. For example, you might tell your school-age children that the family will be at services from 10am-12pm. Ask them what they ideally would like the experience to look like and brainstorm together how to make this happen. Children may decide to spend part of the time in the junior congregation, part of the time with you in the main service, and part of the time taking a break outside.
Bringing special treats to enjoy and toys to play with, and wearing new clothes are a few ways to help young children learn that these are special days to look forward to.
Parents often assume that older kids only want to socialize in synagogue. While there might be some truth to this, empowering teens to help craft their own spiritual experience can ease tensions over the day’s schedule and help everyone take the day seriously.
When planning with children of any age, it is important to express your personal hopes and goals for the day. For example, explain that it is important to you to take time for yourself to pray in synagogue. Kids often assume that their parents are just “following the program.” Changing that perception can make a great impact on children.
Here’s to a good, sweet, and meaningful New Year for the whole family!