My children are now 14 and 12, a high schooler and a middle schooler. Their days are filled with football and band (the boy) and basketball and orchestra and art (the girl). They are, like so many of our children, balancing school and activities and friends. I worry — like so many of you worry — that they are running too hard and treating this journey of school like a sprint rather than the marathon it is.
So as Rosh Hashanah approached, I assumed that they would be thrilled for a day off school. My husband stopped me and reminded me that in prior years, the act of missing school has added more stress to their little souls instead of serving as a respite from their hectic worlds.
So this year, we gave the children a very explicit choice. They could go to school, or they could go to synagogue. Family dinners on both nights were mandatory; services were not. As so many other aspects of their lives have begun to shift to their control, so would their religious observance.
On Erev Rosh Hashanah, as we all cuddled on the couch and watched services — the one aspect of our COVID holidays that has stayed with our family — I asked whether they wanted to go to school or services tomorrow.
Perhaps it was because services meant they got to sleep in until 9:00. Or perhaps they have realized that no meaningful work happens in school during Rosh Hashanah. Or perhaps they really wanted to sit in between their Bubbie and their mom as we pointed to the spots in the Hebrew for them to follow for two hours. But they chose services.
Sitting beside them in services, I reflected on the choices that we all have around the holidays. Whether our choices are governed by Jewish law, tradition, belief, nostalgia, guilt or something else, we choose how to show up in these moments. If Judaism is a way that we can make meaning in our lives, I have found unexpected things — sitting in a sanctuary, listening to the blast of the shofar, giggling when the shofar blast goes excessively long, saying hello to both friends and strangers in the lobby — help ground me in the moment. When I saw my son saying hello to a new friend from AZA, I wondered if he would find meaning in these same ways. Or perhaps he will simply show up at shul to sit next to me because he knows that his presence brings me joy. Or perhaps in the future, he will opt to go to school or work or take a hike in the woods.
Is 12 or 14 too young to be able to opt in or opt out of observance? I am not sure. But as my children begin to take more control over their lives, I want each of them to be able to take control of their religious and spiritual lives also. I hope that — like me — they find meaning and value through synagogue and rituals. Ultimately they — like all of us — will make their own choices. But I will always save them a spot next to me.