Journal of Youth Engagement

An Intergenerational Shabbat Experience: Experimenting Toward Our Future



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By Cantor Chanin Becker, Rabbi Jeffrey Brown and Rabbi Wendy Pein

The community we are privileged to serve, Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El (SSTTE), is in a time of transition.  In 2012, our longtime Senior Rabbi became Rabbi Emeritus and in 2013, our longtime temple Educator retired.  As a new clergy team, we have spent the last year listening to laypeople and collaborating on values-based goal-setting as we plan for our future.

One area that has emerged as a priority is Shabbat worship.

SSTTE has a long history of strong and creative worship services on Friday nights.  But Shabbat morning has never been given the same “attention” by all of the different stakeholders of our community.

In response, we have experimented this year with a new model that we call Shabbat BaBoker (Shabbat In the Morning).  We pray together from 10-11, have brunch until 11:30, and learn in a clergy-led Torah study until 12:30.  The entire enterprise has been a big success for us: attendees come early and stay late!  Much of the positive feedback we have heard has revolved around the casual but spiritually rich vibe (focused around the engaging music), and the longer opportunity to study and discuss the weekly parsha with our clergy.  We are already making plans to continue the model next year.

After the enthusiastic response of Shabbat BaBoker, we took the opportunity to reflect and determine how to continue growing upon the success.  We asked ourselves two questions.

First: could we imagine typical SSTTE families participating in this sort of experience?

We did not know the answer.  Anecdotally, we were told that we’d never be able to get younger families’ attention on Shabbat morning as most of the younger temple families do not attend Shabbat morning services regularly. We sought to test this assumption.

The second question centered on a related issue.  Although we are not formally part of the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution (BMR), we are wrestling with many of the same questions and issues as the congregations participating in the project.  At the core of our work we are wondering: to what degree can we transform our B’nai Mitzvah services into a more authentic communal worship experience? 

To be sure, this is a question that we do not ask lightly in our community.  Shifting the nature of the B’nai Mitzvah service and experience entails a dramatic sense of transition for our B’nai Mitzvah families.

With these question in mind, we decided to experiment.  In early May we invited our 5th and 6th grade families to join a regularly-scheduled Shabbat BaBoker experience to introduce them to an alternative communal prayer and study experience.  As these families are not our regular worshippers, one of our primary goals was to create a welcoming atmosphere.

We invited the 5th and 6th grade families to come half an hour before our service so that we could welcome them and they would have the chance to get to know each other better.  A mixer and refreshments lightened the mood and attendees went into the service comfortable and connected.

During the service, we acknowledged that the content and melodies might be new for many of those in attendance.  We stopped the service mid-way and invited attendees to ask questions about our t’filah (prayer).  We were delighted that several students were comfortable raising questions!

For the Torah study our goal was to empower all of the adults who were with us (5th and 6th grade parents, plus our adult “regulars”) to do the teaching for the kids.

We split the group and one of us worked with the adults to prepare them to facilitate the conversation with the kids.*  We introduced the theme of our conversation: what does it mean to create an inclusive community, in response to Leviticus 21:16-23 and reviewed a daf (handout) with traditional and contemporary sources along with several age-appropriate discussion prompts for our adults and kids to look at together.

For the small group conversation, we intentionally asked parents and their kids to be in separate groups to empower everyone to speak as freely as possible.

The conversations in those small groups exceeded our expectations!  Our young people were engaged and the adults, both their parents and our regulars, were equally engaged!  It was true intergenerational Torah study.  During our “wrap up” we invited a representative from each group to report back on highlights.  Our students insisted that they do the reporting themselves which was eloquent and moving.

We imagine an SSTTE of the future that is less “silo-ed”: Sure, there will always be certain spaces in our community that will be reserved for our young people so that we can Jewishly engage them with their peers.  But that vision is built on the belief that the life of our community is best lived out together.  And what better way is there to live out that value than in the shared space of Shabbat worship and study?

We are still grappling with all of the Big Questions about the future of our B’nai Mitzvah experience here at SSTTE.  But our success during this Shabbat experiment has encouraged us to schedule family-integrated Shabbat BaBoker additional times in the year ahead.  We are confident that our community is hungry for authentic and meaningful engagement: with Shabbat, with Torah study, and most of all…with each other.  We feel blessed and excited about all of the tremendous potential that lies ahead in our future.

* With grateful thanks to our friends and colleagues at Congregational Emanu-El of Westchester for inspiring us with this methodology.

 

Cantor Chanin Becker has served SSTTE as Cantor since 2005. 

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown has served SSTTE as Rabbi since 2012. 

Rabbi Wendy Pein has served SSTTE as Director of Congregational Learning since 2013.  

Journal of Youth Engagement

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