‘As if you were there’: Finding a new way to bring the Jewish holidays to life for families stuck at home (again)

As we approach the High Holidays, families face another holiday cycle with trepidation and exhaustion. Concern over the Delta variant leaves many with more questions than answers, especially those with children under the vaccination age. Bracing for another season of celebrating the holidays away from community, and tired of screen-based events, many of us are wondering, “how can families with young children create meaningful and engaging holiday engagement at home?”

Synagogues and individual families can use the challenge of being isolated as an invitation to innovate, build inter-family connection, and reimagine the ways we introduce Jewish tradition to very young children in the absence of our typical community gatherings. Early Childhood arts education research suggests that when children explore narrative in a hands-on, multi-sensory way, they experience a deep sense of connection, memory-making, and social bonding. I have experienced this first-hand throughout my career in theatre for young audiences, watching how creative drama and imaginative play can transform early childhood learning. Becoming a part of the narrative and experiencing a story from the inside actually changes the way we learn and understand the world. This approach is actually rooted in Jewish tradition, as we are told to retell the Passover story each year “…k’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim” “…as if he personally went forth from Egypt.” When kids and their grownups can play and experience these stories in a personal and immersive way, they build a deep and impactful connection to Jewish identity, tradition, and ritual. 

I’ve spent the last 18 months thinking about how I can apply this methodology from early childhood arts education to Jewish holiday engagement, both for my own 4-year-old son and for others stuck at home. Alongside a team of like-minded innovators, artist-educators, and parents, I created K’ilu Kits as a unique way to bring Jewish holiday stories to life at home. We asked: How could we immerse children in the story, making them feel as if they are guiding baby Moses across the Nile, or getting swallowed up by the whale alongside Jonah? K’ilu Kits offer original audio-led interactive storytelling adventures brought to life by actors, immersive sound design, original music, and interactive invitations that put children at the center of the narrative–they follow Miriam through the Red Sea (using a bed sheet), and look for storms aboard a ship to Tarshish with Jonah (using a paper telescope). Kids and families become part of the action through creative play and imagination, using these exciting audio-guided story tracks, printable props (like a burning bush lantern), and storytelling objects sourced from around the house (bed sheets to become a tent, spray bottles to be storms, etc.). We piloted K’ilu Kits with a Passover Seder Adventure this past spring, serving an enthusiastic 2000+ families across 28 states and 4 countries. We also partnered with synagogues, religious schools, and nursery schools to bring the experience to communities across the country in classrooms and virtual communal events. 

How can the learning from a program like K’ilu Kits be applied to all Jewish engagement for early childhood family programming? Here are five lessons we’ve learned through K’ilu Kits to help guide organizations and families in thinking about how to serve families at home while creating more engaging ways to introduce very young children to Jewish tradition:

Find the story spark for very young children. Story is the perfect vehicle to introduce Jewish tradition and ritual to very young children. While some parts of our stories are hard to explain in an age-appropriate way, find the hook in each of our Jewish holiday narratives that offers an exciting entry point for a 3-8-year-old. Use surprise and agency as tools to generate wonder. Ex. “There’s a baby hidden in a basket floating down the Nile. Where did he come from? Where is he going?” “Jonah is running away from a voice only he can hear, giving him instructions for a mission he doesn’t want to complete. Where can he go?

Immerse the child within the story “as if they were there” through imaginative play. How can you make a child feel the urgency of the narrative and play an active part of the telling? By reframing the story with a role for the child, you allow them to guide the story and experience it from a new point of view. Ex. “You need to go back to Pharaoh and convince him to let your people go. How will you do it? What will you say if he says no?”   

Use a multi-sensory, kinesthetic approach. When children engage through a variety of senses, they develop a richer connection to their learning. How can you incorporate sensory play and movement into Jewish storytelling and ritual? Ex. Taking off your shoes, turning off the lights, playing the sound of a campfire, and putting a flashlight under a sheet to bring the moment of Moses at the burning bush to life; Using a spray bottle to create a mist over the child to “feel the ocean air” on the ship with Jonah.

Find ways to engage off-screen. How can you use screens and digital technology to offer activity invitations that prompt kids and families to play away from the screen? Because K’ilu Kits are auditory and activating imagination rather than delivering visual information, families are able to play the experience at home alongside other families in community but away from the computer. In this way, you can also help families see their own spaces in new and dynamic ways by providing a structure to create at home.

Encourage caregivers and children to play together. Family programming is always more successful when caregivers are actively engaged alongside their children rather than passively watching from the back of the room. This is even more important at home. When the whole family is invited to play together, the impact for everyone deepens. Grownups often need more permission to play than children, so it is important to give them easy-to-follow roles so that they feel equipped to engage in the activity. In this way, kids and grownups can ideally make discoveries alongside one another.

I know how daunting this year has been for families with young children, as I face yet another High Holiday season wondering the safest way to observe while giving my son a way to meaningfully connect to Jewish tradition. But my work this past year is just one example of the many ways that synagogues and communities can offer families a way to safely and creatively experience the Jewish holidays in unexpected ways. This year, I hope families can experience holiday ritual through joyful discovery together, the way young children naturally explore the world. Perhaps, by approaching the holidays through play and wonder alongside our kids, we can even discover new ways to activate Judaism that will last well beyond the pandemic. 

Jonathan Shmidt Chapman is co-founder of K’ilu Kits, as well as the founding project director of Aggadah Adventures at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST). He is a recipient of The Jewish Education Project 2020 Robert M. Sherman Young Pioneers Award. Outside of his work in the Jewish community, Jonathan is the executive director of Theatre for Young Audiences USA.

Based on the learning and response to the first kit, the K’ilu Kits team is launching a full set of holiday story experiences (High Holiday, Chanukah, Purim, and Passover) for families to use at home, or communities to use live or virtually. You can learn more at www.kilukit.com

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