As we have completed most of our major chagim here under lockdown – one of them under quarantine orders – you might have thought that we had adjusted to this new normal. But somehow Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah loomed as a greater challenge. (Remember, it’s just a one-day holiday here!)
Simchat Torah for children in shul is generally a magical time. It’s the only time of year that, rather than sitting quietly beside parents, they can run free, dancing among the crowds celebrating the completion and restarting of the Torah. It’s also the only time that, regardless of their age, children have a chance to stand at the bimah and have an aliyah under a tallis.
And, of course, there are the bags and bags of pekalach that kids are treated to, even though it’s sure to spoil their appetite (and their teeth). Simchat Torah at home just doesn’t have the same appeal.
One of the things we love about living in Modi’in, though, is that there are so many children (though we’ve yet to meet many of them in person yet!). Our local shul, Kehilat Darchei Tzion, found creative ways to engage the kids this holiday. Unable to dance together in shul with the Torah? No problem. Let all dance together at home!
KDT collected video clips of over 40 of the shul’s families dancing with Torahs and flags and compiled them into a wonderful pre-Simchat Torah video that we were all able to enjoy together on erev chag. The excitement was tangible, even through the screen and gave us a little taste of the fun we will be able to have when we can all celebrate again in person together.
Missing out on the candy bags? KDT had us covered. The shul set up a “pekalach swap” whereby every KDT family was tasked with delivering a candy bag to another family in the shul. In addition to providing sweet candies, families were challenged to add additional sweetness to the holiday – by including either a holiday-related story, poem, or joke.
After spending much of our most recent lockdown buried in mystery books – his favorite being the Encyclopedia Brown series – my son knew exactly what he wanted to include in his pekalach: a Simchat Torah mystery book. Together, my son and I wrote about Encyclopedia Mommy and Encyclopedia Adi who are called to action by the local rabbi when a special Torah scroll goes missing from shul in Modi’in on Erev Simchat Torah.
Writing this book together was certainly one of my favorite memories of this holiday season, and we hope that the family who received the story enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed writing it! (PDF copies of this future bestseller, complete with my son’s illustrations, are available by e-mail request!) While it is always nicer to give then get, we also enjoyed the candy bag we received and the thoughtfully-included Sukkot poem.
And while the kids may not have been able to have been called up to the Torah, the shul saw no reason that the Torahs shouldn’t come to the kids. The shul arranged a scavenger hunt, with pictures of Torah scrolls hidden throughout the streets of our neighborhood.
Together with their parents, kids ran around their allowed kilometer, seeking out these scrolls. Each hidden scroll contained a Torah riddle or question. My husband and I were impressed that in addition to knowing the answers to each of the questions, my son could read them aloud, even though they were without nikudot (vowels).
At home, we too made sure to have our own celebrations. (While outdoor socially-distanced minyanim were permitted in limited numbers, I was not comfortable with my husband attending in the current situation.) My husband treated us to leining of the parshiot in the comfort of our own living room. We danced our own hakafot and sang loudly, as my son proudly held his small Torah and my daughter waved a flag atop my husband’s shoulders.
After havdalah and the kids were finally asleep, the city of Modi’in treated us to one last bit of holiday festivities. In Israel, there is a widespread custom on Motzei Simchat Torah to have hakafot shniyot (a second set of Simchat Torah dancing). In better times, cities across the country host outdoor dances with the Torah, complete with live music. This year, the municipality sent around vehicles with speakers playing music and wishing everyone a chag same’ach. My husband and I stood on our porch clapping along, as did our neighbors up and down the street.
The chagim season may be over, but the lasting impressions of a community coming together in spite of the lockdown is something that will stick with us. We are very blessed to be part of such a wonderful kehillah.