Survival strategies for parents on holidays

Like many American Jews, Brenda and Michael are "three-times-a-year Jews," meaning they step into a synagogue three times over the course of 12 months. They drag their daughter, Dina, to High Holy Day services, where she fidgets in boredom while her parents spend most of their time trying to contain her.

"Every year it's basically a disaster," says Michael, "but my parents did it to me and I guess I'm just continuing the tradition."

If your experience as a family mirrors Brenda and Michael's attempt to do the Jewish thing, here's some advice:

Stop the madness.

When you are traveling on an airplane, the flight attendant announces, "In the unlikely event of an emergency, place the oxygen mask first over your face and then attend to your child." As parents, we may feel a bit guilty to think of ourselves first and ignore our child's needs. But we need to breathe in order to help our children breathe.

The same is true for nurturing a spiritual life in our children.

On Rosh Hashanah we draw in deeply from the Divine breath. In other words, we reach as high as we can to attain a spirituality that will make us effective spiritual guides to our children in the coming year.

So if they are very young and they get in the way of your prayers, don't feel guilty about arranging adequate child care.

For families, Rosh Hashanah can easily become a spiritual letdown if not planned wisely.

If you do drag your young children to a five-hour service, you had better be prepared with games, food, juices, a change of clothing and other distractions.

Even then, it is unlikely that they will let you listen to the rabbi's sermon.

If you really want to expose your young children to services, pick an afternoon or early evening service — which tend to be far shorter. Either way, here are some survival strategies you may want to consider:

*Find out in advance which High Holy Day prayerbook the congregation uses, buy several copies, and have everyone in the family make a special book cover of cloth or paper.

*Look through the prayerbook and, at leisure, familiarize yourself with the text and highlight words that speak to you. Some High Holy Day prayerbooks come with an audiocassette, and you can play these while driving in your car in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah.

*At least one family found a children's High Holy Day tape that is played in the car while driving the kids to and from school. The kids sometimes sing the tunes while they are playing with blocks or drawing. As they grow up, they are likely to become increasingly familiar with the prayers and will be more comfortable when they attend services.

*One "heretical" idea is to split your observance of Rosh Hashanah. On the first day, go to synagogue, have the festive meals and participate in the traditional customs of the New Year. On the second day, however, celebrate the "birthday of the world" with a family hike in the mountains or by the seashore. Be prepared with songs, nature games and discussions to help your children appreciate the beauty of nature and the majesty of our Creator.

*At the beginning of the secular year, you may make resolutions regarding losing weight or learning a new skill. On the Jewish New Year it is appropriate to make resolutions relating to the way we treat each other, our contributions to society, our spiritual growth, observing a new mitzvah, trying a new ritual or reading more books on Jewish themes. Have each member of your family write a Jewish resolution and post them on your refrigerator as a friendly reminder.

Most importantly, teach your children about forgiveness by example. Ask them for a pardon from actions or words that you wish you could take back from the past year. And openly engage in this process with your partner as well.