Taking the rush out of Rosh Hashanah: How families go extra mile to instill spirit of Holy Days

As the High Holy Days approach, Fran Tannenbaum Kaye gathers her family close to her and asks for forgiveness.

"Asking your children for forgiveness is usually not something most adults do," said Kaye, who attends the Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland. "It's a very powerful thing for children to see an adult become humble in that way."

During the weeks before the High Holy Days — which climax as congregants join together as a community to atone for their sins — individuals call upon those whom they have wronged, asking for forgiveness.

While turning inward to reflect on themselves, Jews also direct their thoughts outward to family and the importance of holiday rituals.

To bring those lessons home, many local families set aside time to prepare and observe together in the days prior to the High Holy Days.

This year, Rosh Hashanah begins at sunset on Sunday, Sept. 20, and Yom Kippur begins at sunset on Tuesday, Sept. 29.

Some families read to their children. Some clean and cook together. Most view the Jewish New Year as a time to celebrate and worship with each other.

In the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the Kaye family huddles around a computer to search the Internet for illuminating commentaries on the week's parashah.

The afternoon before Rosh Hashanah begins, the Oakland family members typically empty their schedules to make space for the coming Holy Day. They take time "to wind down so we come to services prepared and not feeling harried."

To mark the day as special, Kaye cleans the house — symbolizing "a kind of psychological cleaning" — and reads books about the High Holy Days to children Naomi, 11, and Joshua, 8.

Kaye's husband, a doctor, turns off his pager.

The air in the house is sweetened with homemade honey cakes and honey challahs.

The family becomes "very reflective by removing ourselves from everyday time into special time, to be together as family and worship together," Kaye said.

Later, after attending services, the family partakes in the tashlich ritual, where tossing bread crumbs into flowing water represents casting out sins.

The ritual, Kaye said, "is a symbolic way of starting over. Since it is hard for kids to think in the abstract, it acts as a physical reminder for them."

Other families also feel that sharing household tasks and holiday rituals enriches the meaning of the new year.

Jackie Newman regards her two young daughters, Pauline, 4, and Rebecca, 5, as her most important teachers of Judaism.

"Having children taught me that I needed to learn more about the High Holidays," said Newman, a San Franciscan who attends Conservative Congregation B'nai Emunah.

While looking over her children's shoulders, Newman has picked up on their Hebrew school lessons and their eagerness for the holidays. "They have helped me get excited. It brings us closer together and it's fun for me now," she said.

"When I was younger, I wasn't excited about the High Holidays because I didn't understand them. I want my children to have more of a Jewish identity than I had when I was younger."

Newman primes her daughters for the new year by reading Jewish books, cooking and sifting through their clothes and toys, putting away the old items.

"I make the Jewish holidays into more of a bigger deal because it makes it more fun," she said. "When I was younger, I felt jealous of children with Christmas trees and all those decorations."

Now, as her family embellishes its house with High Holy Day decorations, "the children get excited — just like other children get excited about Christmas."

Like Newman, Judy Hopfer of San Rafael said her involvement in High Holy Day celebrations has deepened since she had Jared, 15, and Dana, 12.

"I want to set the tone of Jewish tradition for my children," she said. "Leading by example makes the holidays very important."

While the Hopfers have been mainstays at High Holy Day services at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, for the past few years they've added a new ritual to their observance.

As the new year approaches, during dinner the family discusses the Bulletin's weekly Torah Thoughts column.

The family chews over the column during dinner. "I ask for each person to interpret what was just read and make it relevant for our family," Hopfer said.

"It's a wonderful time to make connections with the family, since usually everyone is so busy running in many different directions," she added. "It has a double meaning, in that we spend time together and learn together."

For Toby Adelman, a single mother living in Albany, the High Holy Days are a time to focus on her daughter.

Three years ago, she made aliyah and married an Israeli there, giving birth to Shy, 2, whose name means "gift" in Hebrew. After divorcing her husband last year, she and Shy returned to America.

"Being a single parent, I'm very much focusing on my daughter, passing on what I had as a Jew and offering more," said Adelman, who will attend services at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center.

This will be her first Rosh Hashanah as a single parent. It has forced her to think about how much she has and how much she has had to give up.

"I'm letting go of a lot this year, including the dream of aliyah [as well as] ending a marriage," she said.

Though mother and daughter will light candles together for the High Holy Days, and Adelman will be preparing such family favorites as tsimmes, kugel and Grandma Adelman's challah, she still feels "a void in sharing."

In the Jewish tradition, "we weren't meant to spend this time alone," she added.

Regardless of any other doubts, she's sure she wants to raise her daughter with a full sense of Judaism. Most weeks, the two walk to services at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.

Their spiritual journey for the High Holy Days adds another layer.

"It's very important for me for her to know who she is and have a strong connection to her Jewish heritage. And to know what a gift she is — that's how I named her," Adelman said.