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How to Make Yom Kippur Meaningful for Our Children

Helping religious school students experience the richness of the Jewish holiday cycle is one of the great joys of Jewish education. Yom Kippur, however, is probably the most challenging holiday to explain meaningfully on a child’s level. Void of an historical/political backdrop, Yom Kippur is a day full of abstractions which often elude adult understanding. What does it really mean for us to create a state of “purity?” What are the ways we need to work on our social relationships and the ways we need to clarify our relationship with God? How can we get to the place of surrender and acceptance that enables the process of true repentance to occur? For children, who exist in the realm of the concrete, Yom Kippur poses a unique pedagogic challenge.

I have three goals in teaching the holiday to children. Keeping in mind Lawrence Kohlberg’s lesson that children advance in their moral reasoning when exposed to reasoning slightly above their own, I seek to help them “plug in” to their current level of moral understanding and then reach higher levels. Children should come away with a deepened understanding of how they view their own actions and how they want to improve.

My second goal is to impart a “taste of the spiritual.” What does it feel like for a child to let go of the constraints of ego and be uplifted with a sense of joy and serenity? How can a child feel the awe and potential within and around him/her? Underlying the prayers we teach, this “taste” is the goal for which we strive.

My third goal has to do with illustrating how the solemnity of Yom Kippur is based on the goal of spiritual growth, not suffering. Underlying Yom Kippur is a joyfulness, a sense of the ultimate possibility of change and betterment. We want that sense of joyous belief to be felt by our children.

If we can impart a deepened sense of self-understanding in the context of the holy environment of prayer, and a realization that this process ls an inherent part of Jewish life we will have given our children the essence of teshuvah: of returning, of valuing the continual striving for self-awareness and self-improvement in the context of a belief in the possibility of change.

One way I have tried to reach goal #1 is by asking students to study parts of the Al Heyt (“For the sin that we have sinned before you”) prayer (which I have predetermined as having the most relevance for their lives) and, working in twos, to write commentaries. After some sharing, the group then discusses the significance of the collective nature of the Al Heyt. This is a crucial discussion, helping to bridge between Kohlberg’s first stage of moral development, in which the avoidance of punishment is most operative, and his second stage, in which the perspectives of others are considered.

Each dyad is then instructed to write a brand new, contemporary Al Heyt including three items plus commentary. These prayers are then discussed and put in a finished form, which the entire congregation reads on Yom Kippur day. This exercise gives students a chance to grapple with issues that, for them, pose important moral questions. It also allows them to connect meaningfully with the rest of the congregation.

In striving to meet goal #2 –the taste of spirituality–I offer some ideas that I have used in conducting children’s services on Yom Kippur Day. One is to ask children to close their eyes and think for a minute about a time in their lives when they experienced God (it’s helpful for the leader to offer an example first). Often this leads to a discussion of how we can make God more present in our lives. Another idea is to have everyone chant a phrase involving the name of God over and over, with a simple movement that they can do while standing at their seats. Children love the rhythm of the chanting and the opportunity to move their bodies. Often I introduce this exercise after having told an Hasidic story with a theme about how everyone is able to communicate with God in very basic ways.

My third goal–experiencing the joyousness of Yom Kippur–is perhaps the most difficult. One suggestion I have for the classroom setting is for each child to stand in front of the group and share one way he/she wants to change over the coming year and one way he/she has changed in a good way over the past year. After each presentation the class raises imaginary shofarot and has a mini shofar-blowing ceremony. (I try to have as many real shofarot as possible for kids to use.) This allows children to feel empowered and positive about the process of change in their lives.

The above teaching ideas can easily be adapted to family programs and home use. The essence of what I have suggested is the creative use of the “technology” that Yom Kippur offers us–the prayers, the ideas, the stories, the symbols–to enable us all to better understand and appreciate its message.

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