by Marge Eiseman

It’s Rosh HaShanah morning, and our house is in a state of chaos. Our 10-year-old twin sons have grown out of their dress pants. Our seven-year-old son fits in his pants but complains he doesn’t like them. Our 4-year-old son insists on wearing a clashing outfit. My husband and I are ironing, then cajoling the gang into the minivan. And that’s the easy part of the morning. The hard part begins once we get to temple.

We arrive 20 minutes before the morning service begins. The youngest sons are dropped off at classroom programming, staffed by parent volunteers and youth group members. My friends and my parents’ friends are streaming into the sanctuary. In the lobby, I look at my older boys’ faces and see a curious mixture of feelings. They and all the other children in grades four and up have nowhere to go but into the main sanctuary service–to squirm and fidget and plot their escape.

For years, during the Rosh HaShanah morning service, I have led music for the younger children. From my vantage point in the first lower-level classroom, I’ve watched a steady stream of older kids walk the halls, looking for a place to “hang out.” A few years ago, I corralled a few of them and asked what they wanted from their congregation on the High Holy Days. Then I asked my eighth-grade religious school class. They couldn’t articulate what they wanted or needed, but the oft-repeated word “bored” spurred me to action. I knew that the themes of the High Holy Days–among them, powerful stories about relationships within Abraham’s family–are accessible to all ages, but how could we engage our young people? How could we help them see, in ways they could understand, that these days are significant moments of reflection and opportunities for self-improvement?

In 2000, two months before the High Holy Days, I pitched an idea to the executive board and Rabbi David Cohen: I, along with other volunteers, would provide programming for fourth through seventh graders concurrent with adult services, except during the Torah reading and the Shofar service, when the older youths would join their parents in the main sanctuary. It was a “go.” Parents received a letter about the experimental program, and, remarkably, fifty children signed up.

We chose Bibliodrama (role-playing biblical personalities) as a way to understand the Torah portion read on the first day of Rosh HaShanah. The youngsters formed “camps” of six, each group choosing a few children who would play Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac. We used simple costumes and props–a sheepskin vest for Isaac, a black shawl for Sarah, a flimsy scarf for Hagar, a walking stick for Abraham, and a “goatskin” canteen for Ishmael. Led by an adult, the “characters” talked about the challenges they faced using the “leader’s guide” I prepared:

Isaac: Imagine what it is like to be born to a ninety-year-old mother and a hundred-year-old father. Ishmael is thirteen when you are born–what is your relationship? Does he tease or torment you? Are you a “mama’s boy” or independent? Do you cry when Ishmael leaves? Does anyone ever talk to you about what happened?

Ishmael: Life must be dangerous–you’ve already heard how your mother ran out of camp while she was pregnant because Sarah was so mean. How are you treated? Are you the special one until Isaac is born? How do you feel about him? Is he a threat to you–to your inheritance? What do you think of God’s telling Abraham to let Sarah kick you and your mother out of the camp? Why would your mother “lay you down in the shade of a bush” and think you would die? Aren’t you almost a man?

Sarah: You were a priestess and you married Abraham, who was ten years older than you. What was your life like? Did you mind traveling all over the desert, far from home and family? How did you feel when you heard God’s promises to Abraham about being the father of a great nation and then not having any children? What were you thinking when you were so mean to Hagar that she ran out of the camp when pregnant? How could you demand that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, knowing they would probably die?

Hagar: Do you know your name means “the stranger” in Hebrew? What was your real name, the one you had as a child in Egypt? How did you find your way to the camp of Abraham? What was Sarah like as a mistress? Did you and Abraham fall in love or just have a child together? What was your attitude when you came back to camp after you talked to God? Did you lord it over Sarah that God talked to you? Did Abraham comfort you when he sent you away after the birth of Isaac?

Abraham: When God tells you that you will be the father of a great nation, did you ever answer back to God and ask how that could be possible if you are without children at age 86? Then, Sarah gives you Hagar and you have a son, Ishmael. How do you treat him? Why didn’t you argue with God about sending Hagar and Ishmael away into the desert after Isaac is born?

Angel: When you were talking to Hagar, did she understand who you were? Is there anything to be gained by telling Hagar that her son will be at war with everyone and that he and his brothers will be enemies? Is your voice loud or soft?

We started with the scene in which Sarah, unable to conceive, tells Abraham to have a child with Hagar: “Okay, fine. If I can’t have a child, try with her [pointing a finger and saying it very distastefully].” Hagar sidles up to Abraham, all lovey-dovey. One of the moms was playing Hagar to a 10-year-old Abraham; after a giggle, we froze the scene, switched actors for Hagar, and kept going.

The Bibliodrama approach wasn’t perfect. One group never really got into it and left the room with their adult leader. I had hoped that the Sarah and Hagar characters would scream at each other before Hagar storms out of the camp, but the eleven-year-old girls in the roles seemed more pouty than strong. Nevertheless, the kids who participated got the feeling of what it is like “to be” Sarah or Hagar. Next time, we’ll include more kids in performing, and instead of acting out the whole story with one set of actors, we’ll give each group a perspective and ask them to create a skit. This way, we’ll have five or six different interpretations of the same scene, and a great discussion afterwards.

In addition to the Bibliodrama, many children enjoyed the “Wall of Wow!” at the back of the room, where small groups of kids colored and wrote about an amazing event of the past year, and a simple hands-on art project called a “Handmade Midrash” based on the fragment from the Avina Malkeinu prayer, “Fill our hands with blessing.” Using construction paper and glue sticks, the youngsters created baskets, a garden of flowers with finger-wide stems, and more. By the time the children joined the adults for the Torah reading, I was confident that the parashah and its messages were familiar and meaningful to them.

Most of the 50 children returned on Yom Kippur. I began our day by telling them a true story about change. When I was in college, and probably for ten years before that, I tended to be sarcastic. At one point, I was living in an apartment with four other women. One of them, Christy, and I constantly traded insults. One night, we were the only people around. We sat down at the dining-room table, and I said, “I’m sick of this. Could we stop?” She agreed. From that day on, I have talked to people in an encouraging way rather than making jokes at their expense.

The youngsters then divided into groups of six and wrote their versions of Avinu Malkeinu and the Al Chet repentance prayer. “Our Parent, our Ruler, help us be better people. Our Parent, our Ruler, forgive us for the sin of allowing a bully, for the sin of wasting the earth’s resources, for the sin of not appreciating the people who love us.”

Our temple educator, Audrie Berman, joined me in leading a short service, and many of the children served as readers. I taught them to sing the High Holy Day melodies for the Barchu and Shema. When we reached Al Chet and Avinu Malkeinu, the children read their versions of these prayers. Then we joined the main service in the sanctuary, sitting on the floor in front of the bimah. Afterwards, we returned to the classroom and played a team version of the Jewish board game “Holigames.” The kids pondered: “What are the lechem mishneh?” (The two loaves of challah used for Shabbat.) True or false: “All fruits and vegetables are kosher.” (True.) My favorite moment occurred after the main Yom Kippur service concluded. When the parents came to retrieve their children, the youngsters were so engaged in playing they refused to leave.

For the upcoming High Holy Days, the children of my congregation will once again sing, pray, and learn through Bibliodrama, art, writing, and “Holigames.” In addition, in the last week or two before the holidays, I’ll convene a group to practice some new music, and, borrowing an idea from Rabbi Ike Serotta, try to create a shofar choir (and teach the youngsters to blow the proper pattern for each call). As they assume the mitzvah of repentance, I hope and believe they will be more open to a lifetime of meaningful Jewish experience.

Marge Eiseman, a singer/songwriter, teacher, wife, and mother of four sons, is a member of Congregation Sinai in Milwaukee, WI.

Originally posted in Reform Judaism Magazine