Explaining Yom Kippur to kids
By Laura Seymour

Yom Kippur is a difficult holiday to explain to young children as there are many things to think and talk about. The Jew’s responsibility during this week is to go to those whom he or she has hurt and ask for forgiveness. Sounds simple, in theory. But saying “I’m sorry” is hard for children and more difficult for adults. Judaism helps us out by telling us that we must not only ask for forgiveness but also be willing to forgive.
How do we teach our children about forgiveness? One way is to find children’s books to help us out. A particularly good book along these lines is “K’Ton and the Kitten.” Many times stories can bring home many truths and lessons.
In addition to turning to the literature, we can, and should, take an active part in teaching repentance and forgiveness to our children. First, it’s important to recognize (and to teach) that saying “I’m sorry” on command does not make it true. Our children learn many lessons from us on how to handle mistakes and there is much to learn from the Jewish way of teshuvah. The term, which is often translated as repentance, really means “turning back.” We must realize we have done something wrong and feel bad about it. Children do understand right and wrong even when they cannot always control their actions. But they also need to be taught that paying lip service to apologies won’t do the trick.
When we ask for forgiveness, we must say we will not do the hurtful act again. In Judaism, if you apologize then do the same thing the next day, you have not “turned back.” In fact, the rabbis told us we must face the same temptation to do wrong three more times and not make the same mistake before we have really succeeded. Teshuvah, repentance, is difficult! However, it is an important lesson to teach our children. We must also remember that forgiveness is good for all of us — it hurts us to be angry at another person.
After asking forgiveness of those whom we have sinned against, on Yom Kippur we ask God to forgive us. Since I was a child old enough to read the prayer book, I always wondered on Yom Kippur why, when I hadn’t done half the “wrongs” frequently mentioned throughout the service, why I had to stand up and list all the sins. It took a lot of growing up to realize that I was part of a community. Together, as a community, we ask for forgiveness for our collective sins.
Finally, it’s important, especially for very young children, to keep explanations about Yom Kippur very simple. The concept of forgiveness can be boiled down to apologizing for a hurtful act, then working hard not to do that act again. As children become older and have a better understanding of Judaism, atonement and forgiveness, more sophisticated and deeper discussions about the meaning of this time of year can take place.
May you have an easy fast this weekend, and may we all strive to become better individuals in the coming year.
Laura Seymour is director of camping services at the Aaron Family JCC.

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