Rabbi Daniel Fellman, of Temple Concord, and his wife, Melissa, spend time with their children Zachary, 9, Jacob, 7, and Elizabeth, 3.
Rabbi Daniel Fellman once asked his son this question on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar: “Were you the best boy you could be this year?” His son responded: “Sometimes.”
That, said the rabbi at Syracuse’s Temple Society of Concord, was a pretty good answer from a child. “It’s probably even better than some adults,” he added.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins at sunset on Tuesday, Oct. 11, and runs through Wednesday, Oct. 12. It comes 10 days after Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, the Day of Judgment. (Jewish holiday dates vary year to year because the Jewish calendar is tied to the moon’s cycles rather than the sun’s cycles.)
“They’re times of introspection and contemplation and looking forward,” Fellman said. “They aren’t quite the playful, sing songs and give gifts type of holiday as Christmas.”
The focus of the High Holy Days is teshuvah, or repentance. During this 10-day period, Jews examine their consciences, admit to sins, seek forgiveness and vow not to repeat their sins. Despite the serious nature of the holidays, even young children can understand their central message, Fellman said.
“Kids understand what it means to be a good person,” he said. “They know what it is to be kind and to make a mistake.”
Fellman said he and his wife, Melissa, make it a point to let their children see them answer the question: Have you been your best self? “It’s important for kids to see adults make mistakes and say they’re sorry,” he said.
The Fellmans have three children: Zachary, 9, Jacob, 7, and Elizabeth, 3. The family recently returned from two months in Israel. There, he began a routine of reviewing the week during Shabbat dinner. (Shabbat is the Sabbath, the day of rest.)
“That kind of looking back is useful,” he said, adding that the practice may be helpful all year and for people of all traditions. “Rosh Hashana calls us to look back at the calendar and look at how we spend the gift of the year.”
Good books can help even pre-K children understand the holidays’ meaning, said Cantor Kari Siegel Eglash of Temple Concord. Her recommendations include author Linda Heller’s Today is the Birthday of the World for Rosh Hashana, and The Hardest Word, by Jacqueline Jules, for Yom Kippur.
Heller’s book features a large, clumsy bird that accidentally ruins a garden and learns the value of apologies. Jules addresses Rosh Hashana’s theme in a story that asks each creature whether it has been the best creature it can be.
Jewish holidays are marked with food that has special meaning, said Siegel Eglash. She and her husband, Joe, have two children: Ariel, 10, and Judah, 7.
Kari Siegel Eglash, Temple Concord’s cantor, her husband, Joe, and their children, Ariel, 10, and Judah, 7, look at an apple, a food with special significance at Rosh Hashana.
For Rosh Hashana, it’s apples and honey. The round apple symbolizes the circular nature of the year. The seeds represent renewal, and the white fruit inside symbolizes purity. Honey represents the hope for a sweet year to come.
Both the Fellman and Eglash families have gone apple picking on Rosh Hashana. “A Central New York thing is for Jews more than just a Central New York thing,” Fellman said.
Whether attending synagogue services, sharing meals or reaching out to relatives that live far away, family is central to Jewish holidays.
“Family is the heart of what it means to be a Jew,” Fellman said. “You have to be a Jew in community, and the first community you have is family.”
The High Holy Days build in an opportunity for people to mend fences with relatives. “It’s the opposite message of the world today,” Fellman noted. “There’s so much ‘I’m right, you’re wrong and you should go to jail.’ Jews understand the world as ‘I’m right and you’re right.’ There are multiple pathways to the truth.”
The root of the Hebrew word for “sin” means “missing the mark,” Siegel Eglash said. “No matter how badly you’ve done, there’s always a chance to improve,” she said. “That’s not easy, but Judaism builds in the mechanism to make it possible.”
Temple Concord is a Reform Jewish community, a denomination that falls on the progressive end of the spectrum. Judaism includes several denominations—including Conservative, Orthodox and others—that differ in how literally adherents interpret Jewish texts or their level of religious observance. Just as there are many ways to be Jewish, there are lots of ways to celebrate the High Holidays.
“The core ideas of the High Holidays are renewal and repentance and return,” Fellman said. “That’s central whether families observe with shared meals, visiting the synagogue or going apple picking.”
The High Holidays begin with the blowing of the shofar, or ram’s horn, which calls Jews to begin the period of repentance. The ram’s horn is a reference to a key Rosh Hashana reading: the story from the Book of Genesis in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
“It’s sort of like an alarm clock,” Siegel Eglash said. “Kids really understand that.”
Adult Jews—those 13 and older—fast all day on Yom Kippur. In some families, younger children skip a snack or a favorite food on Yom Kippur.
“We talk about how it feels when you go without a certain food,” Siegel Eglash said. “Your body feels different. It helps you focus. It’s not a punishment but a way to click you out of your rut to think about the world in a different way.”
Although Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are well known, fall includes other significant Jewish holidays. Five days after Yom Kippur, Jews celebrate Sukkot, the fall harvest. Sukkot this year begins at sunset on Sunday, Oct. 16, and runs through the evening of Sunday, Oct. 24.
Sukkot is also known as the Festival of Tabernacles. During Sukkot, Jews spend time in huts known as sukkah, representing the makeshift shelters in which the Israelites dwelt for the 40 years they wandered in the desert after escaping from slavery in Egypt.
Some families build sukkah in their yards; most synagogues and Jewish centers build them for the community to use. It’s common for families to share meals inside the sukkah.
Fellman admits he didn’t always appreciate the value of Sukkot. “Sukkot is the time you sit back and enjoy long meals and resting,” he said. “You don’t want to go through all the heavy lifting of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and miss Sukkot. It’s the other bookend to taking an accounting of your life.”
Central New York weather sometimes makes it a challenge to enjoy Sukkot. Fellman and Siegel Eglash both recall braving blustery evenings to celebrate Sukkot, eating soup while bundled up in an outdoor sukkah.
Simchat Torah, the Celebration of the Torah, begins this year on the evening of Sunday, Oct. 23, and lasts through Tuesday, Oct. 25. Some Jewish congregations literally dance with the Torah, the rolled scroll upon which is written the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
“This is a great party,” Siegel Eglash said. “We finish reading Deuteronomy and begin reading Genesis.”
At Temple Concord, the congregation also celebrates children starting kindergarten on this holiday. People dance in a circle, and there’s lots of candy, she said.
Siegel Eglash explains the holiday to children by comparing it to their affection for a favorite book. “I tell them, ‘We love the Torah so much that we read it over and over again and find new things in it,’” she said.
As cantor, Siegel Eglash runs the synagogue’s music. All Jewish holidays feature special melodies. For many Jews, singing “Kol Nidre” on the eve of Yom Kippur invokes the feelings of the holiday. The prayer is repeated three times, asking that all vows and oaths made during the year be forgiven, so all can start the new year with a clean slate.
“Music is a great way to teach ideas,” Siegel Eglash said.
A recent innovation at Temple Concord was changing the music that accompanies Psalm 150 (“Praise him with the blast of the horn; praise him with the psaltery and harp. … Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.”) Rather than what Siegel Eglash called “a very Handelesque” arrangement, the verses are now sung, in Hebrew, to the music for Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
The modern version speaks both to adults who appreciate Cohen’s music and to children who know the song from the cartoon movie Shrek.
“It absolutely works on both levels,” Siegel Eglash said.
Today is the Birthday of the World, by Linda Heller
The Hardest Word, by Jacqueline Jules
Sammy Spider’s First Rosh Hashanah, by Sylvia Rouss
Sammy Spider’s First Yom Kippur, by Sylvia Rouss
Sammy Spider’s First Sukkot, by Sylvia Rouss
Renée K. Gadoua is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @ReneeK