While we probably won’t be seeing children at synagogue this year scampering down the aisles searching for their grandparents, playing endless hours of Match the Mitzvah Memory Game or enjoying peanut-free snacks, area educators and rabbis are nonetheless striving to create memorable and purposeful experiences this High Holiday season for Pittsburgh’s youth.
Yael Eads, Rodef Shalom Congregation’s youth director, has produced an 11-day program for families to celebrate the holidays. With daily activities spanning from erev Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, much of the kit can be enjoyed at home with family, but there are also components intended for outdoor communal use, such as dissolvable paper for tashlich.
“You can write what you want to get rid of on the dissolvable paper, and you can put it in water and the paper will go away,” said Eads. “It’s just like when you throw away your sins at a traditional tashlich.”
Eads is finalizing details for an in-person youth tashlich service, and said that kit recipients who aren’t comfortable attending can certainly use the dissolvable paper at home.
There has to be room for flexibility, as youth of all ages are experiencing numerous challenges this year, said Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, Congregation Beth Shalom’s director of Derekh and youth tefillah.
“For many of them, school, playtime, community time, are on the screen, so our strategy is trying to create a balance between things that are synchronous and asynchronous, on the screen and in-person,” Markiz said.
For example, a service for Beth Shalom pre-K children will occur virtually and synchronously on Rosh Hashanah, but there also will be a prerecorded service for older children so that each family can access the program at a day and time most convenient to its own needs, said Markiz.
Along with engaging youth through screens, Beth Shalom is offering some tech-free activities, including an in-person tashlich for middles schoolers and a separate program for those in high school.
Ensuring that children and families enjoy a meaningful holiday period doesn’t necessarily mean presenting a smorgasbord of options, but rather curating programs and activities best suited to impart significance, said Markiz.
To that end, Beth Shalom has produced a 48-page book complete with stories, coloring pages, games and other activities, including a guide for performing a Rosh Hashanah seder, a checklist for spurring Yom Kippur reflection and instructions for making one’s own scroll to dance with on Simchat Torah. The book is designed for users of different ages and circumstances, and while some activities can be performed by the whole family, other tasks are intended for individuals.
“I’m proud of all the work we create, but this is the first time we’ve ever done this,” said Markiz. “I think it will provide real value, and I’m excited to hear what people have to say.”
At Temple Emanuel of South Hills, families can expect several meaningful opportunities this season. Whether through various holiday-related programs and services or a congregationally designed care package, complete with machzorim, a discussion guide for the Rosh Hashanah seder, a do-it-yourself tashlich kit and other activities, there will be a number of tools for enabling introspection and growth, said Temple Emanuel’s Rabbi Aaron Meyer.
While educators and rabbis have worked hard during the pandemic shutdown to find ways to effectively impart meaning in a largely digital world, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot present unique challenges, said Chaim Steinberg, Young Judaea Pittsburgh youth coordinator.
“We’re all in uncharted territory,” he said. “It’s kind of weird to think about how much is still ahead of us.”
Since in-person youth activities largely ended six months ago, Young Judaea, like other youth groups, has hosted a number of digital events. Rather than gathering children for another virtual talk, Steinberg is offering two alternative holiday activities.
Prior to Rosh Hashanah, Young Judaea youth are scheduled to go apple picking.
Because of the holiday’s timing this year, there should still be apples at some of the orchards, and people can wear masks and physically distance, said Steinberg.
Additionally, in lieu of an in-person sukkah hop, Young Judaea youth will enjoy a blindfolded edible-sukkah building competition. The online educational game begins with information about the laws of sukkah construction and is followed by assigning participants, all of whom are at home, into teams of two. After each team is placed into its own Zoom room, the non-blindfolded team member guides the blindfolded person on how to use edible items to build a sukkah.
“The thought was, How do we do a program that isn’t just another Zoom event that no one wants to go to?” said Steinberg. “We will continue to get better, we will continue to evolve and we will continue to adapt. That’s part of Young Judaea and Jewish youth programming in general.” PJC
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