Surviving the High Holy Days with Children

Nearly every year in the rabbinate around this time of year a parent says to me, “Rabbi, we enjoy the family services, our children have great fun, we love the synagogue, but we don’t know how to find time as parents for ourselves to reflect on the great themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”

There’s an unsympathetic voice, which I often hear in response from other members, along the lines of ‘well you chose to have children, you have to make sacrifices as parents.’ Which actually I think most parents are very aware of – they would and frequently do put their children’s happiness and well being in front of their own.

I have a sense that what they’re asking me though is very real. They want to be inspired by the majesty of the day – if it’s as important as we say it is, then children or not, the process of self-reflection is necessary. And as lives increase in their ferocious pace and demands on time in the never-disconnected lifestyle, I understand what they mean.

So I ran a session in recent days for parents about how to find the space in the busy start of the school year, back to work after summer, period. Of course, it sounds like a horrendously privileged problem, but I’ve tried to pick things that cost little but may carve out time and space for thinking.



Tashlich is a ceremony traditionally performed in the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. It involves going to a pool of water and taking some quiet time to ‘shake off our sins’ into the water. Micah 7:18-20 is a focus for text:

“Cast all their sins into the depth of the water”.

This is a great activity for the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah for you and your children. It means going out to get some fresh air after being in doors all morning and trying to have a special Rosh Hashanah lunch. Head out to the park or somewhere that you know there is a pond/river/stream. While the children play Pooh sticks you’re certain to have a bit of time to reflect. It goes without saying to be careful around open water with children.

Rosh Hashanah Cards

The custom of sending Rosh Hashanah greetings is a very old one and led to some of the first Jewish greeting cards. There are some amazing images of cards through the ages if you search for them. The greeting before Rosh Hashanah was ‘May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year’, which was then shortened to ‘Shanah Tovah’ or ‘Leshanah Tovah’.

On a rainy afternoon, why not have the children design their own Rosh Hashanah cards. There are lots of themes you could use for inspiration — sweet new year, round challah, or you could do apple prints with half an apple. Whilst your children are doing this you can spend some time thinking about who you will email your child’s latest masterpiece. An opportunity to connect with family and friends around the world.

Tzedakah Boxes

The custom at most Jewish festivals is to give charity to good causes. That’s why the synagogue has an ‘Appeal’ at this time of year. We’re told that ‘Repentance, Prayer and Tzedakah’ are part of the process of atonement. The ‘Pushke’ – the tzedakah box was one of the most standard items in a Jewish home when raising money for charity in years past. Especially causes in Israel. You can make your own tzedakah box by using a cardboard box and cutting a hole in the top after decorating it. Or you can find the ‘Decorate your own’ Money boxes.

But actually the point of this exercise is for you to bring the discussion to your children about tzedakah (charity) and giving to causes that mean something to you as a family. Whilst your children are doing the decorating it is a good opportunity to think about where you would like to give charity for the year. Which causes will you renew your direct debit with, which charity will receive a new donation, etc.

Auspicious Food

Round Challah

Symbolic food is all around us at Rosh Hashanah (see below). The round challah is a symbol of the new year — it represents the cycle of the year.

Find a challah recipe online or in a Jewish cook book (there are loads). There may be a special recipe for Rosh Hashanah, but you can add raisins and sultanas and sprinkle with coloured sugar strands as part of the glaze. Pretty much any way to make it sweet! There is something about kneading dough — of course if you don’t have someone running under your feet! But it is a lovely activity to do with children

More than Apples and Honey

The apples and honey are the standard for this time of year. But there are traditions of lots of foods with auspicious meaning (or at least clever puns on their names). For example, lamb ’ s neck or fish head is to symbolise — being the head not the tail of the year.

Below are links to some foods which you can try cooking and eating at your Rosh Hashanah dinner/lunch. It’s a great way to cook new foods for your children to try and because it’s almost like a ‘meze’ there’s lots of choice for different foods on the table: From beetroot to green beans, fish, dates and leeks.

There’s a link here to the basic ‘simanim’ for Rosh Hashanah — the symbolic foods. You’ll see the word play for each food on the end column. file/fid/4053

But there are lots of other sites you can get ideas too:

Spiritual Reflections

Selichot services take place, usually, on the Saturday night preceding Rosh Hashanah. They are a great service for adults – since they’re often very late at night and children are not up. The music is usually a lovely selection of melodies that tune you into the High Holy days and the liturgy also has echoes of the liturgy we will read. So it’s a perfect opportunity to book a sitter, go out for dinner with a friend or partner to reflect together on your year and then go to synagogue for quiet meditation.

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