Traditions play a role in all Jewish holidays, and Yom Kippur is no exception.
According to Rabbi Jonathan Berger, associate head of school for Judaic students and programs at Gross Schechter Day School in Pepper Pike; Rabbi Simcha Dessler, educational director at Hebrew Academy of Cleveland in Cleveland Heights; and Leah Spector, principal and director of Hebrew Judaic studies at the Joseph and Florence Mandel Jewish Day School in Beachwood, Jewish day schools play a meaningful role in teaching students these concepts.
“The Jewish festival looms large in the culture and curriculum of the Jewish day school,” Dessler said. “Yom Kippur provides children of all ages an opportunity to reflect upon attitudes and examine errors, all with an eye to the future so that the errors of the past become the building blocks of the future. As we examine our interpersonal relationships, we remember that the observance of Yom Kippur enables us to build a stronger divine relationship too.”
At Hebrew Academy, students focus on the closeness Jews experience with their faith during the High Holy Days.
“Jews are endowed with a unique sense of spiritual awareness and are always in the growth mindset,” he explained. “This is the time to strengthen spirituality, enhance relationships and value our potential. From early childhood through high school, our students create exciting projects, beautiful crafts, engage in interesting activities or learn about Jewish laws, customs, prayers or liturgy.”
Spector explained Jewish day schools look at the holidays as a way to show children how to live mindful lives.
“When it comes to the High Holy Days and the time to reflect and evaluate, we are examining our characters and we’re trying to be the best form of who we are,” she said. “We’re looking through who we are and what we need to do to be better (people). Research indicates clearly that the more we do this with children and the younger they are, the more tools we will give to handle life in a much more productive way.”
For students at Mandel JDS, the symbols of Yom Kippur are integrated into lessons.
“We discuss what these are reminders of, like the shofar,” Spector said. “We listen to it and that is very tangible for students to remind them to work on this notion of self-reflection and doing better. For younger kids, it’s about how you can be a better friend and share, but for seventh and eighth graders, it’s about having more empathy and controlling their anger. I truly believe it is our job in schools to give students the tools to handle life. By working on something like forgiveness and forgiving the small things, it’ll be easier to forgive the bigger things. It’s about habit building.”
At Gross Schechter, Berger said teachers are always collaborating and discussing how they can take these important ideas and ancient traditions, and translate them in a way children can understand.
“For example, in the book of Jonah, kids begin to hear that story starting in kindergarten and begin to understand in the second grade,” he explained. “What they begin to realize is that God is willing to forgive an entire city even though it must have been bad. And on that level, they understand that God forgives and that’s a message for them too. This helps teachers bridge to forgiveness being a good thing.”
As children get older, Berger said it all becomes more “relative” and conversations deepen.
“For example, in fourth grade, children can understand how holding a grudge can hurt and how forgiveness can help the forgiver,” he noted. “It can be all-consuming and it can feel good to be able to forgive someone. Students must understand at their level. But it doesn’t mean dumbing it down – it means finding where that child connects.”