Tonight begins the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. I’m not Jewish (although Brian and I both have Jewish ancestry), but it’s very important to me to understand other religions and their holidays and traditions, at least a little bit. Hopefully, that understanding translates to emotional and spiritual connections that help me teach my children to be a little more understanding and empathetic from day to day.
“Yom Kippur” means “Day of Atonement,” and it is the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Jews fast from food and water for 25 hours, beginning a few minutes before sunset the night before (that’s tonight) and ending after nightfall on the day of Yom Kippur (tomorrow). As it is considered a complete Sabbath, they attend synagogue and refrain from work. Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish traditions will observe Yom Kippur through fasting and intensive prayer, spending most of Yom Kippur at the synagogue.
Karen Burton is the Director of Childhood Education at Aleph Preschool, the Jewish preschool affiliated with Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. Karen shared with me one description of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that her teachers read with the students at Aleph Preschool:
“Tekiah! The daily shofar [ram’s horn] calls to us on Rosh Hashanah. A new year is beginning. It is a happy time. We celebrate with family and friends, and share apples and honey for a sweet new year. It is also a serious time. We pray that we can change and grow to make the new year even better than the last. For ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we think about the year that has passed and the year that is to come. On Yom Kippur we fast and pray and ask for forgiveness for the things we have done wrong. The shofar sounds again at the end of Yom Kippur, to mark a new beginning.”
Another tradition Burton shares with the preschoolers is going to a fresh water source before Yom Kippur, to recite a special prayer. They then toss in pieces of bread to symbolize casting off their sins in preparation for the holiday.
I asked Karen her advice on how to instill faith in our children, particularly in today’s cultural climate that tends to push against it. She said the key is to focus on values. When we instill basic values in our children from an early age, she counsels that “the spark has been lit, and it can always be re-kindled.”
In fact, Burton said that her school’s focus on values has prompted a number of non-Jewish parents to enroll their children, simply because the parents know their children will learn how to be kind, caring individuals. Their staff is clear with those families that they don’t celebrate any non-Jewish holidays, such as Halloween, Christmas, or Valentine’s Day. As they instead focus on Jewish culture and heritage, they diminish a bit of ignorance and misunderstanding in the world, and increase value awareness.
Interested in learning more about Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah? Celebrating Jewish Year: The Fall Holidays offers straightforward explanations that are great for non-Jews and children.
Burton advises, “There are many wonderful children’s books on Jewish Holidays. Kar-Ben publishing is just one publisher that puts out numerous books.”
Click here for great games and activities for children to help celebrate Yom Kippur!