Fasting on Yom Kippur is a form of moral self-discipline designed to help us focus on our spiritual needs rather than our physical ones. Traditionally, fasting is required of healthy adults. But in Jewish law, there is a doctrine known as pekuach nefesh (saving a life), which states that a person's health or welfare cannot be endangered in order to fulfill a ritual requirement. Obviously, a full day of fasting is not in the best interests of young children and thus violates the law of pekuach nefesh.
According to Jewish practice, a young person reaches religious adulthood at the age of 13. At 13, a person is considered morally accountable for his or her acts. It is customary for a teen to begin a full day of fasting at this age. However, it is probably best to ease your child into this observance. Even children as young as 8 or 9 may fast the evening of Kol Nidre after services, and preteens should be encouraged to skip breakfast on Yom Kippur morning as a partial fast.
Be sure to acknowledge your 13-year-old's effort and success in fulfilling Jewish tradition. It might be nice to recite the Shechechiyanu (special blessing for first accomplishments) in honor of her/his first Yom Kippur as a moral adult at your family or community "break-the-fast" meal.
Q2. My child is scared of the Book of Life. She's afraid that something bad will be inscribed for her for the coming year. How do I reassure her?
It is natural for a child to feel anxiety about something so beyond her/his control as destiny. But, according to Jewish tradition, the Book of Life is not a fortune-telling device. It is a story written as we live, changing from day to day. Actually, it's less like a book and more like a home video camera, which records our actions rather than determining them. And each of us has our own Book to fill.
Explain that a few more pages of the Book will be written in the coming year: Most parts of that story will likely be happy, but some parts might be difficult. Part of growing up is knowing that one can make it through difficulties, especially with the help of one's parents, extended family, community, and God. You may want to remind your child of difficulties in the past that she has dealt with: a bicycle accident, moving to a new city, the death of a pet. You may also want to help your child imagine wonderful events and situations "inscribed" for the coming year.
You can add that though some things in the coming year will be beyond our control, there are many events in the Book of Life that we ourselves determine by how we act toward our friends and family. When we are loving, appreciative, helpful, and kind, our Books will be very different from those of people who are self-centered, thoughtless, and critical. Rosh Hashanah gives all of us--adults and children--an opportunity to find our best selves.
Q3. The services seem pretty long. Should I make my child sit through the whole thing?
Often the needs of adults in congregations are not the same as those of children. Most adults look for services that are thought-provoking and spiritually uplifting. In our world, that translates to a sufficient amount of quiet meditative time, meaningful explanations, and variety in the service. Children, however, like repetition of prayers they know, storytelling, a minimum of sophisticated intellectual discussion, and lots of singing of familiar tunes. The more often you attend weekly services with your children, the more prayers will be familiar to them, and the more your young ones will understand and be comfortable with the behavioral expectations of the congregation.
But if you only attend services at the High Holy Days, it is probably best to find a shorter, more child-oriented family or youth service. If you want to bring your kids to congregational services, be prepared to take turns spending at least some time with the kids in the foyer. Single parents might want to arrange groups. The normal fidgeting of children might well be distracting for the adults sitting around you. Come early and find seats on the aisle in the back or in the balcony, for an easy exit. Attention spans vary with children based on experience, temperament, and age, but my general rule is about an hour of quiet sitting through "grown-up" services is the limit.
Q4. Is there any part of the service that's more child-friendly?
Some sections of the liturgy are more appealing to kids than others. Often children find the pageant-like quality of the Torah processional interesting, so if your synagogue isn't packed, you might want to come about 45 minutes after the morning service begins. The sounding of the shofar, the ram's horn, is also fascinating to kids. However, this year the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, and more traditionally observant congregations will not sound the shofar for this reason. (A second day of services on Sunday may be held, during which the shofar will be sounded.) To avoid disappointment, you might want to call the synagogue ahead to find out.
Q5. My kids asked me if they could make "New Year's Resolutions" for the Jewish New Year as their friends do on January 1. Is this traditional?
The High Holy Days are a time for reflection about our ethics and behavior in the past year and in the year to come. A good family project is for each member of the family to write an heshbon hanefesh (an account of the soul), listing positive accomplishments and behaviors of the past year and thinking about a few areas that could use improvement. This is not a "New Year's Resolutions" list, but a time for gentle and supportive self-evaluation. Make sure that your and your child's heshbon hanefesh are upbeat rather than self-punitive. This is also a good season for a family mitzvah (moral action) project. You might want to set a date to help serve food at a local shelter or participate in a shore clean-up. Doing Jewish activities with your children is the most effective way of supporting their developing religious identities.