How to Talk to Kids About…


A collection of insights from Jewish educators, rabbis and artists on how to talk to kids about core Jewish lifecycle rituals, from circumcision to shiva (mourning).

Saying it Out Loud

“From brit to b’nai mitzvah to weddings to reciting kaddish (the mourner’s prayer), when you actually stand and say something out loud, there is a different level of accountability that you take on for yourself because you are being witnessed. We see you, you are seen, you are heard and your experience is holy and we’re honoring it. It’s like holding up a mirror, for you to see yourself through other people’s eyes. ”
– Naomi Less, Jewish Ritual Facilitator, Musician, Educator and Director of Education and Training for Storahtelling


“Well, I think the question of circumcision, makes people think about being chosen. Being marked. That opens the question of what does it mean to be chosen? What does it mean to be marked?”
– Jill Soloway, Filmmaker and Los Angeles Community Organizer

Tell them as little as possible, create a diversion. “Look there’s rugelach!”
– Racelle Rosett, author Moving Waters  

“Discussing circumcision is absolutely the most uncomfortable part of the bar bat mitzvah preparation process, especially when talking with a male student. You have to be appropriate but at the same time, be honest. Not evade it. Kids appreciate candor. Usually the easiest way to start talking about circumcision is by introducing the story of Abraham and the commandment to circumcise for the first time. I did have one student recently who pressed me on how the mechanics of circumcision really worked, so I encouraged him to talk to his dad as well as google a diagram of how it worked. Not photos and videos because that would be terrifying.”
– Todd Shotz, founder of Hebrew Helpers

“I find it best to be as honest and open as possible. While you shouldn’t be afraid to discuss the physical nature of Brit Milah, you should stress that this meaningful Jewish ceremony involves so much more than a circumcision – it’s a permanent reminder of your commitment to raise your son as a precious member of the Jewish people.  You should tell your child that this decision was just one of many important decisions you made for him from before he was born and will make for many more years – always keeping his best interests in mind.”
– Gabriel Botnick, Mohel (

The Difficult Questions

“My approach to all so-called “difficult” educational questions is to channel the great wisdom of Moshe Greenberg (z”l), the great Bible professor and Jewish educator…First, one should never have to un-teach that which one has already taught.  (We might call this the principle of intellectual honesty.)  Second, one should not answer questions that the student has not asked.  (We might call this the principle of meeting our students where they are.)  These principles guide my approach to everything from the revelation at Sinai to sexuality, and would clearly inform my approach to lifecycle events:  do not misrepresent, and do not overshare.”
 Jacob Cytryn, Director, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin

B’nai Mitzvah

 bat-mitzvah-girl“Every culture, every religion has its moments for monumental rights of passage. There are even secular rituals, like getting a driver’s license or registering to vote. These moments are marking times, where people take on different responsibilities in life. As a bar or bat mitzvah, we ask a young adult to stand up in front of their community, create a ritual space as a leader, and share the ancient narrative of their people. Being ready to conduct that kind of experience takes both inner work and skills—introspection and investigation into family, values and commitment. It is not just about reading Torah in Hebrew.”
– Naomi Less, Jewish Ritual facilitator, musician, educator and Director of Education and Training for Storahtelling

“A bar or bat mitzvah extraordinary because it’s never happened to this kid, and it’s ordinary because the rituals happen every service.”
– Susan Golberg, East Side L.A. Rabbi

This is the beginning ( not the end of ) their Jewish life and choosing the kind of person they want to become. Also, act as if it doesn’t matter to you at all if they have a bar/bat mitzvah. In fact appear exhausted and like you might not even want to bother. Then when they decide to have a bar mitzvah, it’s on them. Remind them that the party is not actually for them but for everyone who helped them to become a good person.
– Racelle Rosett, author Moving Waters  



“The first time that I bring up wedding or marriage is all the way at the beginning of the bar-bat mitzvah preparation process when we’re learning the Hebrew letter chet. It’s because I tell them that the letter looks like a chuppah, and they kids say “what’s that?” And then I pull it up on my computer and show them an image. I explain how it’s open on all sides to be welcoming in your new home, and how it’s reminiscent of Abraham’s tent. I’m also very conscious of not saying bride and groom, just to be sensitive to all kinds of families.”
– Todd Shotz, founder of Hebrew Helpers

Weddings = More food. Lox for sure. A chance to practice the Hora for their bar mitzvah. People held aloft in chairs!”
– Racelle Rosett, author Moving Waters

Joel L. Kushner, Psy.D., Director – Institute for Judaism, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity at HUC referred to advice on how to talk to kids about same-gender relationships from Opening Doors: Lesbian and Gay Parents in Schools, A Project of the Educational Advocacy Committee of the Family Pride Coalition. “Grown-ups create relationships in many ways. Many grown-ups live their lives in couples and take care of one another as a family. Being married is one way to do this. In most places, women cannot marry women and men cannot marry men because there is no law that says they can. But people who love each other can live together, take care of one another and be a family, with or without children.”

Shiva and Mourning

“Shiva is kind of like creating a big hug around the family who has lost someone. By being with them, eating food, and sitting with them, they know that the entire community is trying to wrap themselves around them.”
–       Rabbi Susan Goldberg, East Side L.A. Rabbi

iStock_000002881336XSmall“When talking to a kid ages 2-5 I would say: When a person dies we are very sad. So we want to stay with our family, we want to have people come and visit with us and help us with food and support us with our sadness and help us remember the person who just died. If the kids are older I would bring in different elements.  I would explain that shiva lasts for 7 days and when it ends, it’s a bridge for us to enter back into every day life.”
– Ruthie Shavit, Executive Director of Early Childhood Education at the Silverlake Independent JCC

“My brother decided to bring both of his kids to my mother’s funeral. Not to the cemetery, but to the service. My oldest nephew was 7 and a half and the youngest was about 4. My brother told them that Savta Shuly died and that we wouldn’t see her anymore, but we could look at pictures and she would always be in our hearts. It was just true enough to be true. They stayed quiet for the entire funeral; they got that it was a solemn place. Shiva was in my parents’ house. During the minyan, it was a challenge to keep them quiet because they wanted to watch tv and run around. Kids are so id-driven, and explaining why they can’t have what they want because of this moment of shiva, is like explaining why you can’t have pizza for breakfast. I think it’s important to let the kids know the structure of the day. Say, “There will be a minyan, which is like a shul in the house so we can pray. There will be a Torah in the house. People are going to be in the house all day to talk about Savta Shuly.” At some point my sister-in-law took them out to a museum, which was good. You can’t keep kids in the house like that for 7 days. Kids shouldn’t be forced to mourn with the parents. They’ll process in their own way, they’ll ask a lot of questions, and parents and relatives need to be prepared to answer them…Children can be a great relief in that way, but it’s important that mourners don’t transfer their grief or lash out in their sadness. When it comes to kids, it’s about creating the openness of the conversation, but not necessarily over-sharing.”
– Esther Kustanowitz is a consultant to Jewish non-profits and author of the forthcoming book, Nothing Helps (But This Might Help): A Guide to Loss and What Comes After

“Shiva is a chance to let the loved ones tell stories and remember the happy times of the person who is gone. There will be food. There is often a lot of laughter and, of course, sadness too, but nothing to be afraid of. Often there are cookies.”
 Racelle Rosett, author Moving Waters  

Being in The Club
“Jewish life cycle rituals are designed to make us all feel like we have a club that we belong to, a place to feel welcome and comfortable. At every stage of our lives, we have a big Jewish family who is there for us to say things like “Mazel tov!” and “L’Chaim!” and “What can I get you to eat? You look too skinny…” Judaism gives us rituals to remind us what we’re supposed to do at emotional times – the joyous ones and the not-so-joyous ones…And for all of these moments, there are pages from our Jewish sources to add some meaning: inspiring stories of Jews who have had the same experiences, hopes and fears in generations past; words to live by from the Torah and commentaries; history, philosophy, poetry–something for everyone. At every important moment in life, the club is there, right by your side, saying “Hey, we love you, we’re here for you, and we have this 3,000 year-old tradition to help you thrive in this world. Let’s eat.”
 Dr. Miriam Heller Stern is a Mom, a Dean at AJU, and a Jew who has found joy and comfort in the cycle of Jewish rituals a few times over


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