None of us are done growing; we are constantly becoming someone new. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur help us to prioritize who we will be in the next year. At The Rashi School, we help kids from age 5 to 14, and their families, see Jewish holiday rituals as opportunities to repair the world.
Below are social justice ideas that can be easily integrated into this year’s holiday preparations. Remember that family traditions during the holiday season create memories that last a lifetime!
For Rosh Hashanah
At the core of the High Holidays is the opportunity to do teshuvah (repentance), literally “to return,” to reflect upon the past year and make changes for the new year. Before the holiday, start a conversation at dinner. Think about: What did you feel most proud of this year? What do you want to do better this coming year? Parents can answer these questions and then invite their children to share their ideas. This kind of personal reflection can be extremely powerful.
It is a tradition during Rosh Hashanah to gather at a flowing body of water and toss breadcrumbs into the water to represent those actions and words that we want to improve upon for the coming year. This ritual is called tashlich, to “cast off” our mistakes. Families can do tashlich with their synagogue or a group of friends or on their own. Doing tashlich can be a very concrete and empowering experience for children, especially because they can actually watch their “mistakes” float away, making way for a new start for the new year.
Create New Year Cards and Videos
It’s a custom to send New Year cards to family and friends at Rosh Hashanah. Make it a family experience! With your child, create a list of people to whom you want to send cards. Beyond immediate family and dear friends, think together about other people you know who might not have family around and who would appreciate your good wishes. Then be creative! Maybe take a fun family photo and make it into a card and brainstorm a list of wishes and prayers that you want to include in the card. Or create a short video sharing your wishes, hopes and prayers and send it off to family and friends. Creating and sending New Year cards gives your child an opportunity to experience the power of reaching out to others and wishing them well for the New Year.
Say “I’m Sorry”
One of the mitzvot (commandments) of Rosh Hashanah is to hear the shofar. The shofar’s unique and powerful sound is intended to rouse each of us from our “slumber” and wake us up to pay attention to our past mistakes, to say sorry and to ask for forgiveness from others. Rosh Hashanah provides an opportunity for us to imagine how we might act in the future. Saying sorry is not easy at any time of the year, but taking it on during the High Holidays can make it easier when others around you are doing it as well. As parents, speak honestly to your children about the mistakes you have made and ask for their forgiveness. Remind them that everyone makes mistakes and we always have a chance to improve ourselves.
Challenge your children to imagine what it would feel like for another person to be the recipient of their actions and words and build empathy in this way. Also highlight what you are proud of from the previous year. Create an atmosphere that empowers your children to say sorry for their mistakes and feel good about following through with it. Make it a practice in your family to say sorry throughout the year and compliment one another for positive actions and words.
It is a Jewish commandment to think about others and give tzedakah (justice or charitable giving) as each holiday approaches. Set aside time to talk with your children about people in need. Keep in mind that our tzedakah doesn’t always go to those that are poor, but anyone who needs help. Ask your children to share a specific problem or issue about which they feel strongly. Share an organization or program in the world about which you are passionate. Then you can either put tzedakah in your family tzedakah box to support that cause or perhaps sit with your children and show them how you can write a check to support that organization or cause. You can go one step further and have your child dictate (or write) a short note to accompany the check.
For Yom Kippur
Bless and Appreciate Our Food
Start a tradition of saying motzi (the blessing before you eat) before a family meal. Perhaps start out by saying the motzi on Shabbat. See what it feels like to sing or recite this blessing before you eat. Does it help your family think about your meal in a new way? By saying the blessing before meals, could it help you appreciate the food you are eating more? Then consider saying the motzi during the week at a family dinner. As you’re saying the motzi, take an opportunity to be mindful of where your food comes from. With your child, follow the journey of a particular food. Who planted the tomato seed? Who picked the tomato? Who drove the tomatoes to the store and who stocked the shelves? When we think about every person involved in the process of getting our food to the table, we can become more appreciative of the food we eat.
Food insecurity is an ongoing problem right here in the Greater Boston area and in Massachusetts, impacting especially young children and elders. There are organizations like Lovin’ Spoonful that “rescue” perfectly good leftover food from restaurants, events and grocery stores and deliver the food to those in need.
As we fast, we specifically think about those around us who don’t always have enough or nutritious food to eat. You might want to estimate how much money you would have spent on meals had it not been Yom Kippur and take that money and support a local food pantry. Consider adding additional food items to your weekly grocery list that you can donate to Family Table (the Jewish food pantry in Greater Boston) or your community food pantry. Create a habit of donating food regularly and involving your children in helping pick out the food at the store.
If you have young children, take some time to talk together about the tradition of fasting on Yom Kippur. According to Jewish law, you are not required to fast until you have become a bar or bat mitzvah. That doesn’t mean that younger children can’t benefit greatly from thinking about why we fast. As parents, first think about why you fast. Over time, what personal meaning does it have for you? Share with your children why you fast each year and what it feels like. Consider asking school-age children if they would want to take the challenge of refraining from eating a snack or a dessert that day. Afterward, ask them what it felt like.
Rabbi Jodi Seewald Smith is the school rabbi at The Rashi School. She holds a BA in religion from Washington University and an MA in Hebrew literature from Hebrew Union College. Rabbi Smith has been at Rashi since 2014. Stephanie Rotsky is the social justice coordinator at The Rashi School. She holds a BA in elementary education from Ohio State University and an MA in Jewish communal service/Jewish education from Brandeis University. Stephanie has been at Rashi since 1988.