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Action: How to Build Community on Shabbat
by Ryan E. Smith


Blue Jean Shabbat, Temple Shalom, Dallas.

Ever since Congregation Beth Torah was founded 23+ years ago in Overland Park, Kansas, Rabbi Mark Levin has preached one thing: community.

“The job of a religion is to address the major existential problem in any given time at any given place,” he says. “The major existential problem of our age is our aloneness. Community is the solution for that problem.”

The congregation had created some togetherness initiatives, but the rabbi realized that the community wasn’t tackling the issue on a large enough scale. So at his Rosh Hashanah morning sermon last year, Rabbi Levin offered a simple solution.

“All of you are going to put every Friday night on your calendar,” Rabbi Levin said. “Be at Beth Torah—but only for 15 minutes. Sometime between six o’clock and eight o’clock every Friday night, be at Beth Torah. Because if you don’t, in 20 years this community will not exist the way it exists now. You don’t have to stay. You don’t have to come in to worship. You can come, eat, and leave. You can come, say Kaddish, and leave….You will be here 15 minutes every Friday night.”

In the months that followed, Friday night attendance at the 660-family congregation jumped from an average of 120 people to 200.

One congregant who responded to the initiative is Don Goldman, executive director of Jewish Family Services of Greater Kansas City. For years he had attended the much smaller Saturday morning services because of occasional conflicts on Friday nights.

“Beforehand I would never come Friday night unless I was going to stay for the whole thing,” he says. Now he comes and goes as he can—sometimes showing up just for the social part prior to services, other times solely for worship. Just as important, his 16-year-old daughter, who rarely attended services following her bat mitzvah, now joins him for the early part of the service before they adjourn to dinner.

“When she first walked in, people were hugging her because they hadn’t seen her for a few years, and she liked that,” Goldman says. “I don’t know how often we’ll get her to stay for the whole service, but there’s a connection to our community by her walking in the door.”

That’s the underlying part about Rabbi Levin’s request. His goal isn’t to get more people into services, but to capture the energy of these interactions to create more lasting relationships.

“We’re trying to create a community of people who look forward to seeing one other on Friday night,” Rabbi Levin says. “To be a community, everyone has to show up once a week at the same time and in the same place. Shabbat is the natural time. This is the natural place. We hope to perpetuate this over a lifespan.”

Already a new culture has emerged in the congregation. Some members show up 40 minutes before the worship service and are still in the building an hour after it ends. And now it has become natural to ask: ‘Are you coming Friday night? Will I see you Friday night?’”

Turnout for Friday night services at 500-member Temple Shaarei Shalom in Boynton Beach, Florida has long been good, between 200 and 300 people, Rabbi Anthony Fratello says, but still he felt something was missing. Observing that retirees and young families weren’t mixing as well as he thought they might, he re-envisioned how the temple’s motto, “Generations Coming Together,” could become the basis of a new program that would harken back to a time when people routinely met in each other’s homes for Sabbath supper. Called Grand Shabbat, the program would bring together groups of 10–12 congregants—and in some cases up to 22—for dinner and dialogue following an early 5:30 PM service.

“It seemed simple enough,” recalls the program’s co-coordinator, Rich Goldhaber, “until we realized that we would have to deal with things our ancestors never dreamt about—food allergies, pet allergies, handicapped access to homes, kosher vs. non-kosher diets, etc.”

He and his wife and co-coordinator Natalie created a seven-person committee to work out logistics for the first event. They designed one form to be completed by people who wanted to host a meal and another for those interested in being guests. More than 300 people signed up. Hosts provided a dining facility, candlesticks, and wine glasses; the meals themselves were potlucks. Wine and challah were provided free, paid for by auctioning off to one of the 30 host families the honor of having Rabbi Fratello and Cantor Aaron Kaplan at their table for Grand Shabbat.

The committee also produced a book of prayers and songs for the participants and tried to assemble groups not made up of existing friends. “Our goal was to mix generations and encourage new acquaintances so that on Friday evenings, when people entered the temple sanctuary, there were new ‘familiar faces’ to greet them,” Goldhaber says.

It worked. “The guy sitting next to me and I never stopped talking,” Goldhaber says. “It was about 11 o’clock when people left, and only because they had to be up early the next morning. And the other day I walked into temple and saw a couple that was at our house; instead of waving, which I used to do, I went up to them and we talked for 10 to 15 minutes. It changes the whole concept of relationships in the congregation.”

The program also attracted less active congregants. As a result, temple leaders say, people started attending services more often, and now older and younger members are warmly greeting each other. Both the Union for Reform Judaism and the local Jewish federation acknowledged this with awards, the former with a $1,000 Epstein Communicate! Award.

A second Grand Shabbat potluck took place this past January, again to great success. Meanwhile, Goldhaber says, some congregants are continuing to host weekly or monthly group dinners on their own, “which is the biggest compliment you can get.”

Temple Shalom in Dallas, Texas has turned Shabbat into a teen outreach opportunity. Its monthly Blue Jean Shabbat service (which runs at the same time as the main service) offers young people at the 775-member congregation a chance to find their own spiritual place in the synagogue and with each other.

Students in grades 6–12 design, lead, and participate in the service. The youth group board plans the worship, choosing readings, prayer melodies, and songs (occasionally inserting non-Jewish songs, too). “We decided that the readings we used to do got a bit repetitive, so we came up with our own, either writing new ones or finding related texts on the Internet,” says Matthew Stock, 15, a youth group board member and Blue Jean Shabbat songleader. (Song leader training is offered through a religious school class for older youths.) Teens are encouraged to show up wearing whatever they’ve worn to school and to bring friends from the community.

These days, teens also offer a d’var Torah and organize each service around a subject that interests them, anything from ethical eating to social justice to loving one another. At one camp-style service focused on social justice, Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” was mixed with Mi Chamocha; also, readings featured Martin Luther King, Jr. on racism, Mahatma Gandhi on gender inequality, and Paul Newman on sexual orientation inequality.

“When you give teens a space where they feel free to experiment with prayer without the watchful or judgmental eye of their parents or other adults,” says Barrett Harr, director of high school and youth programs, “they engage in worship in ways that are meaningful to them.”

Blue Jean Shabbat, another Epstein Communicate! Award winner, has proven that teens aren’t too busy for Friday night services—typically 30 or more participate. Their relationships extend beyond the temple as they’ve added dinner together at a local restaurant following services. And many have become more active at temple, inquiring about leadership positions within the youth group or joining the youth membership committee.

Stock adds that being a service leader has “allowed me to step up in the community as a leader. I got a lot of confidence after that.”

For 200-member Congregation Beth Am in Tampa, building community on Shabbat starts with a strong cup of coffee on Saturday morning.

“I joke that the coffee has to be really good,” says Rabbi Jason Rosenberg. “In the beginning we actually had someone bringing in an espresso machine and acting as a barista.”

But Café Shabbat is about much more than coffee. Before services on the first Saturday of every month, the temple’s oneg room is transformed into a lounge. Sofas are brought in from the youth group room, jazz or other soft music fills the air, and board games are spread out on a table. Sometimes the back of the sanctuary is transformed into a place for yoga, drumming, or Israeli dance. Varied programming, organized by the coordinator and rabbi and carried out by volunteers, always includes something intellectual and something experiential, anything from gardening to music appreciation—all intended to expand members’ notions of what it means to celebrate Shabbat, Rabbi Rosenberg says. Good supervised kids’ activities enable young parents to mix with older congregants, and religious school students and youth groupers occasionally join in shared events.

“The goal is to get more people to synagogue and there feel part of the community,” says Elizabeth Strom, the program’s founding coordinator. “Activities are there to be enjoyed, but participants can also feel comfortable sitting on sofas and chatting or reading, if that’s their choice.”

Before Café Shabbat, also a 2011 Epstein Communicate! Award winner, was conceived, on non-b’nai mitzvah weekends it was difficult to gather a minyan. Now the temple doors open at 9 A.M.—an hour and a half before services—and attendance ranges between 24 members to more than 50.

“Participants recognize that Shabbat encompasses a range of activities beyond prayer,” Strom explains. “We exercise our minds and our bodies; we learn to bake challah. We participate in activities that are both familiar and special because they are done with a community, and because probably, if not for Shabbat, we would not have taken the time to do them.”

As Shabbat ends, community-building at 680-member University Synagogue in Los Angeles is just getting started, by harnessing the power of havdalah.

“Often with Judaism, we start something but never finish it,” says Rabbi Joel Thal Simonds. “Before we gather for a meal, we’ll always do the motzi, but we never finish the meal with the blessing to end it. On Shabbat, many congregants were coming for Friday night services, but few were marking the close of Shabbat with havdalah.

That has changed. Now, the congregation’s “Torah Off the Beaten Path” hikes-with-services end on a mountain summit, where about 30 members—many of whom had never participated in a havdalah service—do havdalah with their families and congregational community as they watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. “Just as on Shabbat we enter into a period of rest,” Rabbi Thal Simonds says, “our havdalah hikes allow us to enter the week with feelings of joy, excitement, and a heightened sense of spirituality.”

More recently, the synagogue also instituted Havdalah at Halftime (referring to the halfway point of participants’ lives), an occasional program that pairs the end of the Sabbath with a social opportunity for “parents who don’t get together as much as we used to,” says Rachel Galper, co-chair of the temple’s committee dedicated to empty-nesters. About 60 people attended the debut service followed by gourmet food. “As we prayed and a guitar played, people put their arms around each other, and we knew it was a success.”

Shabbat offers a unique opportunity to mix the social with the sacred. Here are four expert tips on how to uplift the entire community:

  1. Make Shabbat substantive. “Create connective, deep Shabbat experiences so Shabbat will promote itself,” says Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter, Rabbi, URJ Congregational Networks, “and avoid overdependence on sensationalistic experiences. Otherwise, the next time you have to ratchet up the achievement to an even more sensational level, and eventually it becomes impossible to top yourself. Instead, keep going deeper.”

    Cantor Alane S. Katzew, former URJ worship and music specialist, recommends handing out a text and asking members to discuss it with those sitting nearby. “A five-minute mini-study session in the middle of worship helps make human connections while maintaining the holiness of the moment,” she says.

  2. Take Shabbat outside the synagogue. There’s no reason we need to confine Shabbat within the synagogue walls, Cantor Katzew says. For example, during the week Parshat Noach is read she recommends visiting a zoo—“a wonderful way to encourage family time and a sacred encounter.”

  3. Create a sense of belonging with the little and big things you do. Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, a URJ Faculty Member, says, “We need to find ways for people to feel included and get to know one another. Anything that promotes friendship is essential, from small things such as wearing name tags and asking congregants to serve as greeters, to big things such as organizing monthly Shabbat dinners in people’s homes and speaking from the bimah about the shared concerns that connect people to one another. The same applies to inclusion of people with disabilities, from doing small things such as providing large print prayer books and placing tables at a lower level to facilitate wheelchair access, to bigger things such as discussing their concerns and insights, enlisting them in planning and speaking at services, and addressing any fears congregants may have about people with differences.”

  4. Utilize URJ resources. The Communicate! program bank is filled with congregational Shabbat programs that have worked elsewhere and can be adapted. URJ's Shabbat website features a “Shabbat Idea of the Week” and offers a free "Embracing Shabbat" guide for experimentation with Shabbat observance. If you'd like more information, or to follow up with a specific question, please call the URJ Knowledge Network at 855-URJ-1800 or email URJ1800@urj.org.  

Here’s wishing you a congregational Shabbat experience full of warmth, community, spirituality, and shalom.


—Ryan E. Smith, journalist and member of Temple Ahavat Shalom, Northridge, California




 


Union for Reform Judaism.