I go to synagogue on the High Holidays, but I don’t spend much time in the main service. I haven’t heard a rabbi’s sermon in years. Instead, like many parents of young children, my main High Holiday spiritual experience is in the kids’ service with my children.
With kids running around, whining for food, and asking to go to the potty every five minutes, the kids’ service can be a hard place to get a spiritual start to the new year. How much can you reflect on a fresh start with your kids in tow? How much can you think about forgiveness and repentance with a squirmy child on your lap?
Fortunately, the kids’ service doesn’t have to be meaningless. Every synagogue or prayer group does services for children a bit differently, but there are some universal things you can do and think about that will make your holidays more meaningful, even if you never set foot in the actual sanctuary.
Check out these six ways to find meaning in your High Holiday children’s service.
1. Use it as an opportunity to brush up on the basics.
Let’s face it–there’s a lot of assumed knowledge in the typical High Holiday synagogue service. As writer Abigail Pogrebin explored in Tablet a few years ago, most Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services these days don’t spend a lot of time delving into the meaning and background of the prayers. Instead, synagogue-goers settle in for a day of rote repetition and listening–and they may or may not know what everything means.
The beauty of the kids’ service is that it gets back to basics. Kids don’t know much about the High Holidays, so many kids’ services are an opportunity for teaching: What exactly do we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah? Why do we eat apples and honey? Why do we ask for forgiveness? If you don’t know the answers to these and many more questions, or you just want to brush up on your knowledge, the kids’ service can be a great place to be.
2. Consider it a “family service.”
Many synagogues offer a “kids’ service” or a “children’s service.” But as Audrey Korelstein, the education and family director at my synagogue, Brooklyn’s East Midwood Jewish Center, points out, this nomenclature can make parents feel like they’re just bystanders, chaperoning their children to an event made for kids, but not for them. So even if your synagogue’s service is technically for “children,” think of it as a “family service.” A family service involves all members of the family, and helps you recognize that this service is a place to meet your own spiritual needs, not just your kids’.
3. Embrace the noise.
I lead one of the services for families at my synagogue, and every year I buy dozens of plastic toy shofars to hand out to the kids who attend. Last year I made the mistake of handing them out mid-service, which derailed my plan for the rest of the service. If you put a toy that makes a loud, blaring noise in the hands of 40 2 to 5-year-olds, they will not be able to resist blowing it repeatedly. It was noisy, but the kids loved them.
The freedom to make some noise during an otherwise buttoned-up (and let’s face it, kind of boring) day was exhilarating for the kids, and it helped them enjoy the service. As my friend Zina, a mother of three boys, pointed out to me, noise can be an important part of a service–making noise is what kids do, and often how they express themselves.
So this year, I’ll hand out the shofars a bit closer to the end of the service, but I’m going to embrace the noise. Noise is what the High Holidays are all about–we blow the shofar as an alarm, a wake-up call. Services with kids can get noisy with or without toy shofars, so this year instead of shushing your kids or insisting on being quiet as they run through the synagogue halls, think about how their noisiness can wake you up for the New Year.
4. Connect with your kid.
High Holiday services can be a time to connect with your kid on a deeper level than typical after-school conversation, and reflect together on the themes of the holiday. As my friend Sara shared with me, family services can allow for one-on-one moments with your children to talk about moments from the past year they are proud of, and moments they are not proud of, and things they want to accomplish or do better within the new year. Don’t be afraid to share your own moments and reflections with your kid. It’s a time for you to learn about your child, and for him or her to learn about you.
Perhaps the best thing about missing out on the grown-up service is the ability to get physical. While many Jews barely move from their pews all day during High Holiday services, those in the kids’ service usually have the opportunity for movement. Whether it’s marching in a circle holding plush Torahs aloft, adding dance moves to certain songs or prayers, or, as we do at my synagogue, incorporating yoga into the service and doing the “tree pose” while singing “Eytz Chaim Hi” (meaning the Tree of Life; it’s a prayer that’s sung as the congregation puts the Torah back into the ark), these moments allow you to get off your seat during the family service.
Many spiritual traditions practice movement as a way of connecting to God or finding deeper meaning. Judaism, too, has examples of ecstatic dance as a way of experiencing a different state of consciousness and expressing joy. While your service may not give you the space to dance as intensely as the biblical Miriam did upon the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, movement can add a spiritual element to your services that you may not get otherwise.
6. Get involved
Creating an engaging service for kids and their parents, and keeping it fun and interesting for 30 minutes or more for a wide range of ages, is hard work. It’s also spiritually rewarding–it offers an opportunity to shape conversations, facilitate learning, choose the way prayers get sung, and more influence than most lay synagogue-goers usually get to have as they start the New Year.
So this year, find out if there’s a way you can help. Maybe you can lead a prayer, read a story, start a group conversation, or simply slice up some apples for the kids to dip into honey. Your effort will go a long way to making the service leaders feel supported (especially on Yom Kippur, when leading a service is much harder!), and it can also help you get more out of the kids’ service, so that it’s more meaningful to you and not just a diversion for your kids.
Hopefully this year, you won’t feel “stuck” in the kids’ service and can use these tips to embrace High Holiday services with your kids with new vigor. Shanah tovah!