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Speaking to Kids About Yom Kippur

Speaking to Kids About Yom Kippur

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Blowing the shofar, giving tzedakah and building a sukkah are concepts that resonate with most children. But trying to explain the concept of Yom Kippur to children can get stickier than a jar of honey on Rosh Hashanah.

Nevertheless, the sentiment surrounding the Jewish Day of Atonement should sound pretty familiar to most kids who have done wrong at least once in their lives: "Say you're sorry for what you did, and say it like you mean it."

On Yom Kippur, we say we're sorry, and we really mean it. In fact, the rabbis teach that for a complete teshuvah (repentance) to take effect, it requires us to admit our sins, apologize, and set things right for the future. That demonstrates sincere remorse and a desire for change

Everybody makes mistakes, from the very young to the very old This provides a wonderful object lesson for children: Everybody makes mistakes, from the very young to the very old. And forgiveness is always possible. Yom Kippur offers everyone the opportunity to ask for forgiveness and to resolve to do better next time.

Many Jewish families begin Yom Kippur by asking forgiveness from one another for hurtful things they did during the year. Each person vows not to repeat his or her mistakes in the coming year, and family members offer forgiveness to one another before heading off to Kol Nidrei.

One pre-Yom Kippur activity suggested by a Jewish educator is for families to write letters to themselves in which they contemplate their spiritual goals for the coming year. Parents can also ask targeted questions for everyone to ponder, such as, "What can we do to be better to others this year?" Some families turn the teshuvah process into a group effort by vowing to volunteer at local soup kitchens, choose their words more carefully, or attend synagogue more regularly.

The business of fasting, however, is a tad more difficult for children to grasp. A full day of refraining from food and drink is no easy feat for anyone, young or old. Although children are not obligated to fast until they reach the age of bar or bat mitzvah, they can be encouraged to skip a meal (or more) depending on their age and maturity. But how can we explain the idea behind this mitzvah?

Framing the concept of fasting in positive terms is important, say some Jewish educators. Yom Kippur offers us a specific block of time set aside to reflect on our deeds during the past year and to determine a new and improved course for the future. This is such an awe-inspiring task that it doesn't leave much room to think about trivial matters such as physical sustenance.

That's the notion Rabbi Yoni Mozeson of Teaneck, New Jersey tries to get across in his discussions with young people about Yom Kippur. "G‑d knows that it's no fun thinking about what things you are not so proud of…what good things you want to start doing and how you are going to make that happen," he said. "So G‑d made one special day when there's no use thinking about food, because you can't eat. And you can't hang out. So all that's left to do is to think about your life."

The beauty of the holiday is that nobody is alone with these heavy thoughts. If you look around in synagogue, everyone else is contemplating the very same thing at the same time that you are, he said.

Rabbi Ephraim Simon of Chabad of Teaneck stressed that "the most important point of the fast is that we should use this one point in time to focus entirely on our spiritual connection to G‑d and how we can connect deeper and thereby live better, and live a more ethical and more holy life."

We can better empathize with those who are impoverished and have to go hungry Fasting gives us the benefit of feeling vulnerable for at least one day a year, say Jewish educators. When we deprive ourselves of food, we can better empathize with those who are impoverished and have to go hungry. Then we can appreciate better what we have and perhaps be inspired to give more tzedakah.

You can help your children have a more uplifting Yom Kippur by explaining the meanings behind the rituals and urging them to participate as much as possible. Children who are old enough to sit still and listen can attend part of the prayer service – Kol Nidrei and Neillah are particularly beautiful – and may appreciate watching their parents taking the day seriously.

While abstaining from food and drink are the most well known Yom Kippur obligations, there are other opportunities for young people to "afflict their souls" on this day, according to Jewish law. Children who are not fasting should refrain from bathing, and even if they are eating, they should restrain themselves from eating sweets and other favorite foods. They should also don non-leather shoes.

All children should be invited to participate in the Seudah Hamafseket (the pre-fast meal) as well as the break-the-fast meal. These meals should be special gatherings for the whole family, fasters and non-fasters alike, and are an opportune time to discuss spiritual goals for the coming year.

Finally, when the fast is over, everyone should head outside to begin preparing for the next holiday by building a sukkah.

Deena Yellin is a reporter at a daily newspaper in New Jersey. Her work has been published in The Jerusalem Post, Newsday and The New York Times.
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