By Scott Slutsky, NFTY-NE Membership and Financial Vice President and a member of GRSLY
I felt the stares like daggers through my sweaty brow. A prayer service usually contains a few spiritual songs sprinkled with inspirational quotes; I came prepared with nothing of the sort. My nervous body shook. My parents, who drove two hours to see my service, caught my eye, calming me. I held an unsure thumb up to my brother. He started the projector, displaying a cartoon clip comprised of jellyfish and a sea sponge dancing to loud music.
“Our world is crazy and hectic like the jellyfish dancing in SpongeBob’s house. Our prayer, the Barchu, is a call to focus and to end this craziness so we can prepare to pray,” I read. People looked dumbfounded. What was I doing trying to discuss SpongeBob SquarePants at a Jewish service?
Many teens in the Reform Movement, including myself, struggle to connect with religion. Relating to Judaism is hard; relating to cartoons is child’s play. This is why after being selected to be a PC at Institute last year, I worked for months to link SpongeBob to religion. I wanted to help people connect to Judaism in ways they normally would not. The service was a combination of traditional Hebrew prayers, SpongeBob clips, and brief descriptions of how each clip relates to Judaism.
During conventional services, my peers often seemed uninterested. They would talk, use their phones, or even catch up on sleep. During this service, the teens were focused and engaged, giving all of their attention to prayer. They made eye contact with me when I spoke, and they didn’t talk or text at all. Everyone embraced my presentation, and my confidence grew with each slide.
After a clip from the episode “Born Again Krabs”, I read, “Mr. Krabs’s greed leads to him selling SpongeBob to the Flying Dutchman. Squidward then helps Krabs repent for his sin of greed.” I explained that our prayer, the Mi Chamocha, is about redemption and Krabs sought redemption.
My recap of the clip “MuscleBob BuffPants” included: “SpongeBob buys inflatable muscles to make himself look bigger to impress Sandy. When his friends notice that he isn’t actually stronger, his plan fails.” I described how the clip shows that we should be proud of who we are and to not change ourselves for others. Our Aleinu prayer praises God for giving us an identity distinct from others, and SpongeBob should be proud to have his own identity.
I felt proudest when adults nodded in approval as my service went on. Leading the service felt natural. We closed with SpongeBob’s classic “FUN” song, with the corresponding music video playing on the screen. The participants enthusiastically sang and danced along, as free spirited as SpongeBob himself. After the service ended, I was met with an overwhelming “Yasher Koach,” meaning congratulations. People shared with me what they learned or what their favorite parts were. I was overjoyed.
To the untrained eye, there is no religion in SpongeBob, but through hard work I found that connection and shared it with the people who mean the most to me. A rabbi on the staff told me he had never thought one could relate something as simple as SpongeBob to Judaism, and that he would never look at the TV show the same again. It amazed me; I never thought I would be teaching something to a Rabbi.
It was totally Sababa!