Ask Interfaith Mom: My Kids are Bored at High Holy Days. Help!

Shofar, photo Susan Katz Miller


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.

–Interfaith Mom

One Reply to “Ask Interfaith Mom: My Kids are Bored at High Holy Days. Help!”

  1. Whoa! Great suggestions you offer here, but I totally disagree about her kids being “really too young to sit through adult High Holy Day services, or even to go to children’s services without a parent.” You’re not going to like me saying this, but that is mostly a (modern) white parent thing. Legions of black parents bring their young(er) children to church every week (and have for generations upon generations) and the kids sit through the service, just as my daughter did, right along with the many other kids in the service, coloring and playing with her one doll I allowed her to bring. That is part of the group socialization that is expected and common in many, many churches across the country. I suspect this is true for Jewish congregations too.

    It is certainly true that a four year old may have some difficulty being away from parents for a long time in the children’s service, especially if this is not the regular habit of their family. But that goes to my conjecture that the real issue may be that these kids don’t go to synagogue often enough to be comfortable in that setting. Many children would be fidgety and bored if they don’t have a connection or feel that there is a place for their involvement. But another highlighted race difference in child rearing from this mother’s letter is the notion that I would ask my 6 and 4 year old their opinion on religious instruction. How could they possibly create an informed contextual response; what do they know? If this is important to your family, then you as the parent make the decision that their membership and participation in this community is what’s going to happen, at least at this age anyway.

    In my church, I see families with young children visit and many choose to join our congregation, and, since it is a new experience to the children, they may be fussy at times. So what? That’s part of their socialization. But with regular attendance, the parents learn to set boundaries and to provide appropriate distractions, and the young children settle down and come to know that this is a special time for their family, and our church family, and meet the appropriate age expectations, in the sanctuary and in children’s church when they are a bit older.

    One thing that many parents of young children may not realize (and that I had to learn myself) is that you can’t escape parenting even in church or synagogue. It may be necessary to check out the children’s service to see if it will suit you. It may be necessary to get involved to make it better. It may be necessary to switch off with other parent volunteers so that you can plan for your time to be fed in the sanctuary. But the more you engage your children in your family and synagogue or church rituals, the more they learn how important their membership and involvement is to your family and your religious community. It is also good to remember that children thrive in structured environments with predictability. So, though I agree with you Sue that you can do these suggested activities with your children at any time, if you set aside a regular time for your family to engage in these times of faith expression and instruction, then the children learn to be more comfortable and engaged for longer periods of time. This can certainly help with participation in a structured religious community environment such attending service at the synagogue. And, to finish off with your wise words, “in this way, you will have a greater chance of instilling love in your children for these religious traditions and rituals.”

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