"I started fasting for half a day on Yom Kippur since I was in first grade," said 7-year-old Erin Faigin nonchalantly. Between helping her dad run the High Holiday preschool program at Temple Beth Torah in Granada Hills and fasting until lunchtime, Faigin seems to like the responsibility the holiday presents. Karen Davis, Faigin 's mother, seems content with the idea of her daughter's partial fast. "Since her dad and I are so active in the synagogue, none of us is going to get breakfast that day by default," said Davis with a laugh. While Davis is not concerned about her daughter's desire to fast, the issue of children fasting for Yom Kippur is often a debatable topic for parents.
According to Rabbi Sheryl Nosan of Temple Beth Torah, children are not required to fast, however, parents should teach kids the meaning of the holiday. Within her congregation, Nosan encourages the ritual for healthy children who have completed b'nai mitzvah. "I want the bar or bat mitzvah to mark a significant change in their Jewish lives. Fasting is one of the ways that they can feel a tangible change in their Jewish responsibility," she explained. For children who are approaching b'nai mitzvah, she recommends an abbreviated fast.
Shelli Kachlon, an elementary school teacher, is not so quick to allow her three children to skip meals that day. "We don't ask them to fast, because they're not bar miztvahed and they don't have the responsibility like an adult would, but if they want to, they can," explained the North Hollywood resident. Kachlon's 11-year-old son, Ariel, tries to fast for a few hours each Yom Kippur in preparation for his post-bar mitzvah days. Her other two children, Heather, 9, and Jennifer, 4, do not participate. "My girls are too young and they don't understand," Kachlon explained.
Dr. Wendy Mogel, a local clinical psychologist and parent educator, suggests that instead of presenting the idea of fasting in a negative light, parents can position it as an honor and an opportunity. "When a child takes on any mitzvah and voluntarily engages in ritual, it is worthy of parental encouragement. It's a better way to try to be grown up rather than wanting to watch R-rated videos," Mogel said. She stresses that parents should commend children for effort. "What I've seen so many times is 7- and 8-year-olds say with pride and conviction, 'I'm going to fast this year,' and they last an hour or two," she recounted. "This is an opportunity for parents to say, 'What a good start you've made. Last year you didn't do it at all. This is a milestone.'"
Nosan said that by the time a child is old enough to understand that we do things differently on Yom Kippur, he or she can begin to learn the food component of the holiday. "For a 5-year-old, that might mean three meals, but no special foods, like sweets or cakes or cookies." She also notes that different children may have different needs and that if a parent has questions, he or she should check with the child's doctor.
Mogel also comments on the touchiness of the subject of fasting. "It's a very charged topic already, because it has to do with food," she said, referencing how our culture and the media glorify thinness. "That leads me to want to tell parents to not put too much pressure on kids," she says. Mogel warned that if a child has a tendency toward eating disorders, parents should not encourage fasting.
In addition to learning by fasting, Davis said her daughter is gaining an understanding of Yom Kippur by helping her father with the synagogue preschool that day. Still, both components are shaping her Jewish identity. "On Yom Kippur," Faigin said, "I kind of think about my family and glad for them and that I'm glad I'm a Jew." Will she fast for the whole time when she is older? "Maybe," she said.