For Hebrew-school educators, Lag BaOmer presents some unique challenges. It comes as the school year is winding down to a close, competing with end-of-year exams, field trips and sports events—not to mention students with spring fever.

Then there’s the story of the holiday itself—one that can be a bit unnerving for young children. After all, it is both the day when the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped dying en masse from a plague and the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

So how do teachers handle this one-day holiday (which starts on the evening of Wednesday, May 25, and lasts until the evening of Thursday, May 26) that in modern times is synonymous with parades, bonfires, barbecues and outdoor festivities?

Chana Devora Solomon, co-director of Chabad at Short Hills, N.J., with her husband, Rabbi Mendel Solomon, focuses on the big picture. The creator of a popular “Parsha Play” curriculum used at Chabad Houses around the world—and a mother of six, whose children range in age from 3 to 22—Solomon blends interactive entertainment with lessons on the weekly Torah reading and Jewish holidays.

Q: How do you go about teaching Lag BaOmer?

A: Because the holiday takes place near the end of Hebrew school for most students and there is so much to get done, I like to tie some things together.

For instance, last Sunday we held “Prize Day” for our kindergarten through sixth-grade students—about 75 of them in all. They got to pick out little toys and kid-friendly items based on the number of award points they had acquired throughout the school year, using the CKids (Chabad Children’s Club) innovative points program.

Because I wanted to do something special related to Lag BaOmer—and something that would inspire them to learn more about the holiday—I prepared a question-and-answer sheet for them. They had already learned about Rabbi Akiva, and on this day were being taught about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The questions were worth different points based on levels of difficulty for a total of 50 added points they could put toward prizes.

It made it rewarding and fun—always a good, lasting message for children.

Chana Devora Solomon, co-director of Chabad at Short Hills, N.J.
Chana Devora Solomon, co-director of Chabad at Short Hills, N.J.

Q: What do you tell the children about why Jews celebrate the day?

A: We focus on the more positive aspects. We teach that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai went into the cave with his son Rabbi Elazar, and had plenty of food and drinks, and that they were there for many years (12, to be exact) learning Torah.

When he came out of the cave—being away from society for such a lengthy period of time—he didn’t fully understand or appreciate people, so Hashem sent him back in so that he could perfect that quality. This teaches children the importance of understanding differences among each other.

We teach our students about Rabbi Akiva and his wife, Rachel, and how he got the chance to learn Torah even though he was already very old. It shows that it’s never too late to learn Torah. He first learned the alef-bet at the age of 40. That’s impressive, and gives students the hope that no matter what level they are on, they can always become someone great. It’s truly never too late!

And, of course, we also count down the days to Shavuot.

Q: Is there something you specifically incorporate regarding the holiday?

A: One is a song about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that I learned growing up at the Chabad cheder elementary school in Morristown, N.J. But I changed the wording. In the original song, it made reference to something negative about the anger in his eyes. I changed that to the more positive message of “with a glare of his eyes he did stare.” It’s a little less scary. It teaches a child that Hashem didn’t want Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai to be judgmental of another, and made him return so that he can learn to view another with understanding and love.

Q: Speaking of specifics, can you describe the “Parsha Play” curriculum and how you wound up creating it?

A: When we first moved to Short Hills 21 years ago, we had a small minyan, a prayer group, with some families who had children. I realized that instead of playing traditional games with the kids on Shabbat morning, I could use that precious time to educate them about their Judaism. The key was to do it in an engaging way.

Entertainment for children at outdoor events for the holiday often includes a moonbounce.
Entertainment for children at outdoor events for the holiday often includes a moonbounce.

I began to think of ideas for games, using lessons and stories from the weekly Torah reading. This way, they would learn as they played—and it was successful. Each year, as our children’s program grew and we gained a different range of ages, I added new games and ideas until I compiled enough for every Torah portion. At that point, I was hiring high school girls to run the program; they loved it so much that they urged me to write a book.

I eventually worked all those lessons into a single volume, along with additional lessons for preschoolers and summer-camp students. The result was a 450-page book and DVD that is sold to Chabad Houses, day schools, synagogues. [Printed in 2010, it’s called Parsha Play Curriculum: An Interactive Torah Curriculum for Teachers.]

Q: What do you have planned this year for Lag BaOmer?

A: We always arrange a public festive event outdoors for the community. For the last few years, my family has held a large barbecue with entertainment for the kids and foods that they enjoy, such as cotton candy and snow cones.

My husband speaks about the holiday, and then we have a special game-show-style activity where the kids are divided into teams and answer questions about Lag BaOmer.

Here are some examples:

1. Rabbi Akiva taught his students to love each other as they love ... [fill in the blank].

2. How many days do we count between Passover and Shavuot?

3. Why did Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son have to hide in the cave?

4. What sports-related activity is celebrated on Lag BaOmer?

Jewish residents of Short Hills enjoy Lag BaOmer festivities held by the Solomon family.
Jewish residents of Short Hills enjoy Lag BaOmer festivities held by the Solomon family.

Q: How did you celebrate when you were in school?

A: When I was a little girl growing up in Morristown, N.J., I remember our teachers at the cheder would help us make bows-and-arrows out of branches and string. We would collect long, thin branches, and tie a string to one end and then pull the branch to form the shape of a bow. Then we would tie the other end of the string tightly to the other end of the branch to hold it together. We collected another stick to be used as the arrow. We had so much fun shooting them!