photo of a family sitting in front of Shabbat candles

A Tradition of Creating Meaningful Rituals

This article originally appeared on Jewish Boston.

Imbuing a ritual with meaning distinguishes it from routine or habit.

Cindy Kaplan of Newton is raising a daughter with significant special needs. Now a young adult, Mira has become a driving force behind her family’s Shabbat observance. It’s a celebration infused with ritual that Mira has embraced through her participation at Boston-based Gateways: Access to Jewish Education. As a student in the organization’s Sunday school for over 10 years, Mira has become a bat mitzvah and thriving member of the Jewish community. Like Mira, all of Gateways’ students are nurtured to become full-fledged participants in Judaism.

Judy Elkin is a life coach and educator who teaches a popular class in the Boston area called “Parenting Through a Jewish Lens.” She observes that Mira’s rituals work so well because of their intentionality. “Shabbat is a main ritual where we create a sense of belonging, a sense of comfort,” she says.

Rituals have been an important touchstone for Mira and her family. The rituals associated with the Shabbat Friday night meal have brought meaning to the Kaplan family. “Shabbat dinner is a grounding presence for us,” says Kaplan. “It provides a sense of predictability. It also allows Mira to experience at home what she has learned about Shabbat. She shows tremendous joy at the blessings. She loves music. But what she really loves best is challah. Because of her physical, cognitive and emotional limitations, what she is capable of doing is taking off the challah cover, and that has become her role at the table.”

One of the main objectives of a ritual is to provide comfort. A key example is a goodbye ritual. But Elkin asserts that even taking medicine can also be attached to a ritual. “The ritual has to create connection,” she says. “When you don’t do rituals, something is missing.” Kaplan notes that “various rituals in our family have been planned or integrated. Others have evolved and found us. All of them are very important to us. For Mira, it has provided a sense of predictability. She knows what is happening, and she gets excited about it. It signals to her that she is an important member of the family, and she has a special role in it.”

Elkin says ritual also conveys caring. “Connection is connection forever,” she says. “At dinner time, take a few minutes to note what was good or even bad about the day. Rituals screen out noise and distraction. There should be no phones during dinner or any ritual. Kids don’t always like that, but they don’t have to like everything. If it helps to make the connection powerful, it’s working.”

And what about the ritual that isn’t working or the child who doesn’t want to participate? Elkin suggests that a parent can revisit and revise a ritual that is no longer effective. In her estimation, a parent instituting a ritual has to be extremely clear about his or her values. She points out that “values can change over time because we keep changing. Throughout, you have to intentionally ask yourself, ‘What are we about?’” The child who rejects a family ritual should not be forced to join in. She recalls an example of a teenager who refused to partake in Shabbat with his family. The family kept engaging in Shabbat rituals. Now a rabbinical student, the young man came to realize that his family’s rituals began to take on as much meaning for him as they did for his family.

Rituals can evolve as children get older. A younger child may rely on reading together every night to signal that it’s time to wind down and go to sleep. But this ritual need not be permanent. As that child ages, the ritual may naturally fade out.  But others can grow in its place. Rituals have many functions and purposes to give a child or teen identity, comfort and grounding. For example, high school kids can eat a light snack after homework is done. Elkin calls this “a ‘joining point.’ Grown children can engage in holiday rituals or institute adult behaviors like family happy hours. The point is to be open to myriad rituals that can work for the family.”

Both Elkin and Kaplan agree that imbuing a ritual with meaning distinguishes it from routine or habit. Meaning can be emotional, and it can also be tradition-based. Elkin encourages parents to “involve children in the process of doing a ritual or even inventing a ritual. How do we want to do Hanukkah or the first day of school? This teaches children that there is intentionality in the things that we do. Marking and pausing says this matters. These are ways to connect ritual to our hearts.”