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Imaginative Erev Shabbat Services
by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

Erev Shabbat services This column spots the latest trends in Jewish life, within our Movement and beyond. Trends that are welcome and trends that are worrisome. Trends that you bemoan and trends you want to make your own. Read on—and let us know what trends you're observing.

The outdoor courtyard of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan is brimming with 1,500 people who have gathered for Friday night worship under the stars. “The natural setting, fellowship, and occasional picnic after services create a kind of ‘camp experience,’” says lifelong Temple Israel member Sue Curhan. “You smell the trees and look around at what God created—it’s an amazing feeling.”

“Services Under the Stars”—which has grown by about 100 congregants per year over the last ten summers—is just one of Temple Israel’s innovative approaches to revitalizing Shabbat. At TI’s monthly “Shabbat Unplugged” service, which features Chasidic-style gospel sounds (a practice inspired by clergy visits to neighboring Baptist churches), congregants are encouraged to sing and dance: a Power Point presentation on a large screen at the front of the sanctuary displays the song lyrics as well as the prayers, which leaves congregants free to clap and move about. “My children are happy to go,” Curham says. “My whole family, even Bubbe, loves the feeling.”

Shabbat at Temple Beth David in Westminster, California also excites both the children and adults who are offered creative concurrent programming every three months. Following a Synaplex model (an initiative of STAR: Synagogue Transformation and Renewal), the full Shabbat evening program features wine and cheese, a short Jewish independent movie, services, and a full array of program choices: Jewish yoga, Krav Maga self-defense, and more. While the adults attend classes or lectures, a “Kids’ Club” for children ages 5–10 features mitzvah projects, snacks, and Shabbat games. Then everyone comes together for dinner, intergenerational craft projects, and the ever popular Oneg Shabbat smoothie bar. You see “lots of people happy on Shabbat, smiling and relaxed,” says board member Melanie Alko. “On a regular Shabbat, about 75–100 people come to services, but on a Synaplex Shabbat, we see around 250 people at temple. It feels more like coming to camp than going to services. People find it fun to have choices and try things they’ve never experienced before.”

Manhattan’s Village Temple draws standing-room-only crowds to its monthly Synaplex Shabbat evenings, each on a different theme, from an “Ethiopian Shabbat” of food and music to a “Jazz Cabaret” in which Rabbi Chava E. Koster sets the Shabbat liturgy to the music of Kurt Weill and, along with musicians and the temple’s cantorial soloist, performs the work in the candlelit sanctuary. “People hear the liturgy in a new way,” Rabbi Koster says, “and when they’ve had a meaningful Shabbat experience, they are eager to come back for another one.”

At Temple Chai in Long Grove, Illinois, alternative Shabbat programs are offered to different constituents. The monthly “Shabbat Chai” service features music by the temple band, “The Fabulous Tchotchkes,” and the puppetry/story-telling service attracts 400 people of all ages. Rabbi Stephen Hart uses his life-size “alter-ego” puppet, Rabbi Soul; his puppet colleague, Rabbi Love; and the rabbi’s puppet daughter, Rachel, to tell stories about what it means to be Jewish. “Towards the end of the service, you hear a little voice and the puppets appear,” explains congregant Roz Topolski, the mother of Jason, 5, and Rachel, 8. “My kids are captivated—and so are we.” Congregant Andrew Zimmerman adds, “When my children, Ethan and Sam, were a little younger, they couldn’t wait to go to Shabbat services. They felt like the puppets were talking to them, and they had a chance to respond and be part of the service. Their childhood Shabbat experience has been so completely different than mine…they come to services and participate, while we used to just sit.”

The possibilities for erev Shabbat innovation are limitless.

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a freelance writer.


Union for Reform Judaism.