Beyond apples in honey: Teaching repentance to kids

Dipping apples in honey, blowing the shofar, gathering together as a family — these parts of the High Holy Days appeal to most children. But to teach children only about the customs surrounding Rosh Hashanah is to give them just one part of the story. The more difficult aspect of the High Holy Day message is the part about sin and repentance.

"To me, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur make a very important statement about us as human beings. They say that we can change into who we want to be, who we can be," said Reform Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, who has a part-time pulpit in Blacksburg, Va. "This is very hard work. So hard, in fact, that we have to stop everything else we are doing, work and school, to set aside the time."

Scheinerman said the High Holy Days provide a unique opportunity for children and adults to look inward for self-examination.

"The gem of the holiday is that it allows you to put a mirror in front of you – you look at yourself face to face and think about how you want to change," she explained. The value in attending services is that they provide a community setting in which everyone is engaged in the same process. "The looking inward and deciding to change is very hard work," she said. "It can be comforting and more effective if everyone else is doing the same thing."

Repentance comes when the person admits he or she has done something wrong, apologizes for the wrong, and changes the behavior to make the situation right. So, it isn't enough to simply ask for forgiveness. There must be a conscious change in the way the person behaves so the same mistake will not be repeated.

Tshuvah, or repentance, occurs when the transgressor apologizes and makes an attempt to repair the situation. "It is grounded in the notion that human relationships are crucial. How we relate to others says a great deal about the type of person we are," said Scheinerman. An apology is not an apology unless it is a serious attempt to set things right. "We must do it AND feel it if the process is to have an effect," Scheinerman explained.

The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provide an opportunity to work on these concepts as a family. Although very young children may not have a full understanding of the theological implications of the holiday, parents can begin by discussing concepts such as sharing, being kind to family and friends, and the notion that everyone makes mistakes.

Everyone — adults and children — has the opportunity to choose between right and wrong. The message of the High Holy Days allows people to admit to their shortcomings and emerge refreshed, renewed and returned toward the path of righteousness.

Ten tips on teaching children about sin and repentance:

*Know what you believe before embarking on a discussion with your kids.

*Only tell your kids what you believe. If you believe that God is a process, rather than an all-powerful being, for example, don't tell the kids that God watches their every action. You might want to discuss different ways of interpreting God in order to present alternatives, but be sure to say, "This is what I believe."

*Don't give children any more information than they can handle, but at the same time, do not underestimate their capacity to grasp intangible concepts. "No human being is too young for introspection," said Sheinerman. "Even preschoolers can understand the idea of right and wrong. We begin to teach them the concepts inherent in the High Holiday message when we talk to them about how we treat others."

*Take part in a tashlich service. Tashlich means casting, as in casting off sins. On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Jews traditionally gather by the nearest moving body of water. Families bring leftover bread, torn into crumbs, to toss into the water at the appropriate moment. The act of throwing the bread into the water symbolically allows people to cast away their sins, in order to begin anew.

*An easy family tashlich activity: purchase some dissolving paper at a craft or magic store. As a family, write down things that each member, including the adults, wants to change or improve on in the coming year. Bring the papers to tashlich, and when the time comes to throw bread into the water, throw the papers into the water and watch the "sins" dissolve. Even if there is no tashlich service in your community, you can go together as a family to a nearby stream or brook and make up your own service!

*Observe the Ten Days of Repentance. The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are for thinking about relationships with one another, and with God. Make the effort to ask forgiveness from those you have wronged, and resolve to try to do better in the coming year. Try to take some time on each of the days to do something related to Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. A little piece of trivia: where did the American custom of making New Year's resolutions on Jan. 1 come from? The answer is Jewish tradition.

*A family activity for the Ten Days of Repentance: Send "tshuvah-grams" to each other — notes that ask individual members of the family for forgiveness about specific acts. An example: "Dear Sarah, I'm sorry I listened in on a telephone conversation you were having with your friend. I respect your need for privacy, and I won't listen again when you are on the phone. Love, Mom."

*Read some great Jewish books together. Scheinerman runs a Web site — –with an annotated Jewish book list. Two of her favorites for the season are "Yossl's Prayer" and "Even Higher."

*Talk to your kids. Begin the topic of sin and repentance by telling them something you did that you feel badly about. Admitting that you aren't perfect opens the door to allowing children to own up to things about which they might feel badly. These kinds of conversations also will set the precedent during the year for honest and open communication among family members.

*Stay home from work, let the kids stay home from school and attend services as a family. At the end of Yom Kippur, invite one or two other families to join you for a "break the fast," creating long-lasting memories for your children, and for yourselves.