Get your kids into the High Holy Days by engaging them

Jewish holidays are not just commemorations; they are celebrations that attempt to recreate the actual events of our history. And every holiday, regardless of its relative importance on the calendar, is tied to a story — stories of salvation, suffering and personal redemption, even humorous stories.

Diane Frankenstein

As motivational as stories are for adults in terms of engaging their interest and commitment, they are critical for getting children involved in the holidays and their activities.

The High Holy Days and Days of Awe represent a particular challenge for parents and teachers to find the proper way to convey the significance and gravity of the holidays to children. Unlike holidays like Purim and Passover that have obvious stories and symbols that capture the imagination of children, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur require more scrutiny to mine the stories that are embedded in their observance.

Unearthing those stories is the key to getting children truly involved in these holidays. Children love narrative, but most of all their curiosity has to be stimulated so they engage.

For example, the shofar is a great tool to tell a story — the story of its origin and significance, which stems from the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. It’s is also a great jumping off point for a discussion of music and the different sounds.

Dipping an apple in honey is also an opportunity to explore with children: Why an apple? Why honey? Children love to be challenged and asked for their ideas and opinions.

The custom of tashlich, going to a body of water to figuratively rid oneself of sin, is replete with stories and symbolism and allows for children to act out the story.

Fasting on Yom Kippur is a great subject for discussing the importance of food in our lives and why we deny ourselves this pleasure on the holiday. Why do some people wear sneakers on that day? Are they running somewhere? Humor, too, can be a powerful tool in getting children to engage.

The more one delves into the holiday, the more stories there are: Talmudic stories, stories from the Midrash, Chassidic stories … an endless number of stories that spark a young imagination and stimulate conversation and question-and-answer between child and parent or teacher.

More than most, Jewish holidays are rooted in Jewish literature — and what is Jewish literature in the end but the telling of stories?

One of the enduring themes of the High Holy Days is tzedakah, not just the giving of charity, but giving of ourselves to others. Parents and teachers can help children explore the meaning of tzedakah by asking questions such as: Is giving a privilege or an obligation? Is giving only about tangible things or is it about being generous with emotions? What small but significant kindnesses should be performed around the holidays? What qualifies as a true act of charity?

Questions like those engage children and make them think, enabling their parents and teachers to transmit the values of the holidays that make them so special.

Talking to children about sneakers and apples is a good way to engage them in the High Holy Days.

Families spend a lot of time in temple on the holidays, and a large part of that time is devoted to prayer. Think for a moment about prayer. What should children pray for? Does prayer help change things? What form should prayer take?

There is a well-known story about an ignorant shepherd who only knew the alef-bet, so he simply repeated it again and again, in the hope that God would string together the letters into words. Is that a more profound prayer than what may be found in our prayer books?

We ask for forgiveness on the High Holy Days. How does a child ask for forgiveness if he or she does not understand the concept of transgression? Ask them questions: Why is forgiveness important? How do we say I’m sorry to a friend, and is it the same if you say it to God?

The overriding idea is that the High Holy Days are embedded with many of our Jewish ethical values, such as hope and the need for kindness. The very sounds of the shofar mimic the sounds of weeping. Can anything be more dramatic?

The Kol Nidre prayer is all about making and breaking promises and the weightiness of a promise, a subject that children confront every day with their parents and their teachers. Ask them: How do you feel when you break a promise, or when someone breaks a promise to you?

It’s all about getting children to discuss their feelings and thoughts. So, what seem like holidays that are impenetrable are, in fact, events full of experiences that children go through every day.

The High Holy Days are particularly special because they bring families together and should be used to bring them closer — through conversation.

Diane Frankenstein is the author of “Reading Together: Everything You Need to Know to Raise a Child that Loves to Read.” She lives in San Francisco and works as an educational consultant in children’s and adolescent literature. More info: