I love the Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot—the fun, creative process of decorating a sukkah; the beauty of looking through the sukkah roof at the autumn moon and stars; the pleasure of eating delicious meals with friends and family in the unique, impermanent shelter that is a Sukkah. Several years ago, my family inherited a sukkah structure that came apart in neat pieces from friends who were moving from Philly to Hawaii. We managed to put it together and with a few trips to Home Depot for extra supplies, got it standing. We went to work decorating and then made plans to invite guests to our sukkah—my son’s preschool class and the kids’ families, neighbors who had never seen a sukkah before, friends from our synagogue.

We don’t get the sukkah up every year; sometimes at this season, we are still getting in our back to school and activities groove or have other work and family obligations needing our attention. I miss the excitement and energy of putting up a sukkah in those years—but have also come to a place in my life in which I’ve tempered my expectations of myself and know when it’s okay to pass for this year.

But whether we get the sukkah structure up or not, I remember the value of how opening our sukkah to friends has been a helpful way to teach my children about the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. Whether your family puts up a sukkah at home or not, there are so many wonderful ways to involve young children in learning the value of hospitality anytime of the year. Here are a few of the lessons from Sukkot that have worked well for my kids:

  • Use Their Creativity: Do your children like to get busy with crayons, markers and (pardon the suggestion) glitter? Put them to work making a big welcome sign for your guests (putting all the materials outside cuts down on your clean-up). If you are having a meal with formal seating, kids can make place cards for your guests.
  • Involve Them In The Kitchen: My son who is now 11 has autism and has fine motor delays. We discovered that cooking together is a wonderful way to gain hand strength and work on fine motor skills needed for writing. Even young children can help you make a fruit salad—peel clementines, slice bananas, wash apples with you. Make some cookies together to serve to your guests.
  • Model Your Manners: As we know, our little ones are watching us all of the time! One of the great opportunities of hosting guests is the chance to have your children watch your hospitality in action. Show them how you offer guests a drink, take their coats (well, maybe not in the sukkah), show them where the restroom is. You may soon have some special helpers at your side!
  • Practice Greeting: While some children are naturals at greetings for coming and going, other children need some practice and encouragement. Before your guests come, model saying “Hello” and “How are you?” with dolls or puppets.
  • Plan Activities: If your child will be having friends over, think together about what your child and his/her friend(s) might like to do when they come over. Does the friend like to play ball? Color? Ride trikes? Having a few choices of activities in your child’s mind can help him/her feel ready for his/her guest. When my daughter was two and three, we would put away a few of her special dolls that she didn’t want to share before a friend came over. Thinking ahead with your child about the visit can help him/her feel confidant when they friend arrives.

Teaching your child how to welcome guests can be such a fun process and watching your child internalize the value of hospitality by participating in a developmentally-appropriate way is so satisfying. I would love to hear your comments about ways that you help your children to welcome guests. 

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion and serves as jkidphilly Center City director. Visit her cooking blog at www.kitchenclassroom4kids.com.