Dear Interfaith Mom,
I love our interfaith families community and being a member has helped me, and my marriage. But I like to go to the synagogue that I grew up in for the High Holidays, and that’s what we’ve done for the past few years. I want my children to know what a synagogue is like–what it looks and feels like. I was signing up for tickets and told my six and four-year-old children that I was signing them up for the children’s service while I’m in the main sanctuary. They both said no, they don’t want that, they want to sit with me. Then my older son said he likes church better because synagogue is boring and takes a long time. As of now, I’ve told my kids that they don’t have a choice and they have to come with me and they’re going to the children’s program.
How can I handle all this better?
–Hurt and Angry
Dear Hurt and Angry,
Every Jewish parent (intermarried or not) faces the issue of trying to help children have a meaningful experience of the High Holy Days, and of balancing that need with adult needs for deep spirituality. I understand your desire to introduce your children to your childhood synagogue, and to help them feel comfortable in a synagogue environment. I feel the same way. My kids (now teens) started going with me to full-length services when they were in upper elementary school. But your kids are really too young to sit through adult High Holy Day services, or even to go to children’s services without a parent.
When my children were little, I took them to the children’s Rosh Hashanah service held in the afternoon at a nearby synagogue because it was convenient, geared towards children, and both short and engaging, with apples and honey and lots of blowing of the shofar. No one expected kids to be there without parents (it was somewhat chaotic, even with parents). Then I would go on my own to adult services in the evenings and mornings.
It is asking a lot to ask small children go to a program without a parent. It’s also asking a lot to have them sit through adult services, and it probably won’t be the most spiritual experience for you if you are having to shush them and oversee crayons and coloring books. The risk is that negative experiences for them could create lasting negative feelings about these services, this community, Judaism, or religion in general. Frankly, a lot of adult Jews (and Christians) who are now non-practicing had this kind of negative experience, feeling forced to sit through “boring” church or synagogue services, without feeling any spiritual connection.
One suggestion I have is to take them to your childhood synagogue for Shabbat on occasion during the year—the service will be shorter, the crowds less intimidating, and they will enjoy the Oneg snack afterward. Oh, and rabbis tell us that Shabbat is the holiest of days. In all, this will probably be a more successful way to instill love for the synagogue. And they will become more familiar with some of the prayers, and recognize them when they do go to High Holy Days when they are older.
I am not advising you to ignore the Days of Awe. I understand your strong desire to have your children participate in some kind of observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Just try not to buy into the religious competition around this (or any) issue. Instead, work to make any and all religious activities they participate in meaningful on their level, until they are old enough to understand the intellectual content of adult services. Since they are in an interfaith education program throughout the year, they will be learning Hebrew literacy, and about Jewish thought and ritual, and this will help them become more interested in what happens at synagogue.
For now, I think your best options include sitting through a short part of an adult synagogue service or interfaith families service, or staying with them at a children’s service. You could then go with your parents to some full adult services at the synagogue, without them.
While they are small, the most successful strategy may be to also mark the holidays in more informal ways, by engaging their senses. Say the blessings at home and dip apples into honey. Many families go apple-picking after services: a reward for sitting still, with apples as a theme. Some families make a cake because Rosh Hashanah is the “birthday of the world.” Take it out into the night candles lit, let the wind blow them out, and then leave the cake in the backyard for wild animals to eat (check out this children’s book on the cake tradition). Most children find this thrilling. And do go to a local creek or river or beach for the tradition of Tashlich, in which you toss breadcrumbs representing sins into the water. You can do this on your own, on your own schedule, at any time during the holidays–maybe invite friends to come along. (The Jewish parenting website Kveller has lots of resources for children’s activities and books for Jewish holidays). These are the kind of multisensory experiences that inspire spirituality in children, and in adults as well. In other words, do what you can to make the holidays meaningful for them, rather than an obligation or competition. In this way, you will have a greater chance of instilling love in your children for these religious traditions and rituals.