With its solemn theme of atonement for sin, Yom Kippur, which begins today at sundown, can be a daunting holiday, particularly for children.
"It's probably the least child-friendly holiday," acknowledges Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, director of Jewish Education at the Jewish Community Center.
But rabbis and educators say the lessons of Yom Kippur, which include forgiveness, starting over and personal responsibility - conveyed in stories such as Jonah and the Whale, a major part of tomorrow afternoon's liturgy - resonate with all ages.
And given the continuing bloodshed in the Middle East and the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, rabbis and educators say, this year's High Holy Days offer an opportunity to reflect through the lens of faith and tradition. They are not shying away from connecting the violence of the past year with the lessons of Yom Kippur.
"We've had a very, very hard year as Jewish people and as Americans," said Rachel Glaser, education director at Beth Israel Congregation's religious school in Owings Mills.
"But all of our rituals, they're very empowering. We're not just helpless, but we have the power to change," she said.
"There are three important words we teach the children, three things that can help us have a good year: repentance [teshuvah in Hebrew], prayer [tefillah] and acts of kindness [tzedakah]. If we do these three things, we can turn our lives around," Glaser said. "And we like to teach our children that if we do one good thing, it will have a ripple effect."
At Beth Tfiloh Community School in Pikesville, dozens of kindergarten children took those lessons to heart as they listened to a favorite biblical tale during a Yom Kippur lesson.
Zipora Schorr, the director of education, delivered a dramatic retelling of the story of Jonah, who was sent by Hashem - the name for the deity used by many Orthodox Jews who don't want to take God's name in vain - to the city of Nineveh, where the people were "mean to each other."
"They didn't say `I'm sorry.' They didn't say `please' or `thank you.' They didn't play with each other. They kicked and screamed and fought with each other," Schorr said, in her simplified version of the Book of Jonah.
But when God told Jonah to go to the people of Nineveh to persuade them to behave, Jonah said he didn't want to go. "`I can't go to Nineveh, because I'm scared,'" Schorr recounted. "`They're going to make fun of me because they're mean people.' ... So he said, `I'm going to run away.'"
As the familiar story goes, Jonah escapes on a ship that is caught in a storm. The captain suspects someone on board is running from God, causing Jonah to offer to go overboard. When he does, he's swallowed by a large fish and spends three days in its belly, giving him time to think and make up his mind.
"`I'm going to Nineveh and take responsibility,'" said Jonah, according to Schorr. "`It's not just good enough for me to be good. I want other people to be good, too.'"
Jonah went to the people of Nineveh and told them to "do teshuvah," the High Holy Day practice of examining the past year's actions and asking the forgiveness of any person who might have been offended. Jonah said that "`Hashem says you can do teshuvah and be better.'
"And everyone in Nineveh did teshuvah, went back to Hashem and were nice to each other," Schorr said.
Schorr then turned the children's attention to the violence in Israel.
"If each and every person in the world were kind to each other, do you think there would be peace in the world?" she asked, to a resounding "Yes!"
Another lesson of the story came from the mouth of one of her listeners, 5-year-old Jillian Balk: "Jonah can never run away from Hashem because Hashem is everywhere."
And that fact can help children frightened in a time of so much turmoil and uncertainty, Schorr says.
"If we're scared or if there ever is a time that something bad happens in the world, you should think of Hashem," Schorr told the children. "Say, `Hashem, please take care of me.' And Hashem is everywhere, and he will take care of you."
Cardin, the rabbi from the Jewish Community Center, sees another message in the story.
"Jonah was shocked at the response to his words," she said, referring to the repentance of Nineveh. "We should not be afraid to act because we don't have power. You don't know. You open your mouth, and amazing things can happen."