As the community marks this weekend’s Shabbat UK, Caron Kemp finds out how shuls are creatively engaging with congregants during the day of rest throughout the year – from kiddle-up shabbat to Thank Hashem it’s Friday!
On a mild Friday last October, in excess of 100,000 people representing more than 200 communities, youth movements, schools, outreach and welfare organisations, and other groups across the country simultaneously took part in the inaugural Shabbat UK.
The event, an offshoot of The Shabbos Project, which began in South Africa in 2013, saw communities from Edinburgh to Portsmouth united in celebrating a momentous Shabbat like no other. Generations of women baked challah together in 27 venues around the UK, there were individual tales of people moved to tears by the incredible atmosphere and many thousands kept Shabbat for the first time in their lives.
Such was the success of Shabbat UK 2014 that we are about to welcome in this year’s effort, which promises to be even grander and more profound than its predecessor.
Yet while the inherent charm of this October weekend is palpable, the drive for communities to engage people yearlong in the beauty of Shabbat has been the long-term offshoot challenge, and Friday night – the biggest night of the week – has been the focus.
As a direct result of last year’s Shabbat UK, Whitefield Hebrew Congregation in Manchester launched Young Whitefield, which hosts events to draw in young Jews from the area and encourages them to explore their Jewish identity. This is never more pertinent than on Shabbat.
“Shabbat has never been more relevant than today,” conveys Dovi Colman of The Forum; a charity that works to provide innovative and interactive Jewish education to both adults and children in the Greater Whitefield area.
“In an age when the world moves at such a quick pace, people don’t have time during the week to stop and take stock of their relationships with others, with their family, with themselves and with God.
“The Friday night service is a beautiful way to welcome Shabbat. The singing, the warmth, the sense of having arrived – sometimes a little out of breath – at the weekly station-stop that is Shabbat; this feeling is palpable.”
At Pinner Synagogue, families that had previously never come to shul on a Friday night have been drawn in by the introduction of an innovative “service not service” called Thank Hashem It’s Friday.
Created as a way of engaging young families in synagogue life on a more regular basis, parents and children sit together for a special Kabbalat Shabbat interspersed with educational elements, singing and dancing.
Either a sushi kiddush or a communal dinner with an entertainer for the children and speaker for the parents then follows the event, which runs at four-week intervals and is supported by the Chief Rabbi’s Centre for Rabbinic Excellence.
“This is a unique opportunity for me as the rabbi to speak to the children about Shabbat, the Parsha and other Jewish ideas,” explains Danny Bergson, rabbi at Pinner Synagogue.
“It is only through regular attendance that families can absorb and appreciate the atmosphere of a synagogue service and feel at home. Also, regular attendance leads to natural learning of the rhythm of the service and an understanding of its depth.
“The Friday night service seemed a great choice because it’s short and full of sing-a-long Teffilot and songs. It means that together we can enjoy the unique experience of bringing in Shabbat as a community.”
On the last Friday afternoon of each month, the children from Edgware & District Reform Synagogue can be found sitting together on the bimah, singing songs, dancing, hearing stories and eating. The informal Kuddle-Up Shabbat gives the youngest members of the community the chance to take ownership of the main synagogue in an accessible and appealing way.
“For some families, it is certainly their way of engaging with Judaism and marking the beginning of Shabbat as a special time,” admits project organiser Lauren Nathan. “For other families, it reinforces what they do at home and is an opportunity for their children to see that there are other children just like themselves who celebrate Shabbat, too.”
Similarly, Rabbi Pete Tobias of The Liberal Synagogue Elstree, hosts one bar/ batmitzvah class a month to coincide with Kabbalat Shabbat.
“While the children are learning, parents lay tables and complete preparation for the Shabbat dinner that’s been cooking all afternoon,” he explains. “Then class ends and the children and parents light candles and make kiddush before sitting down to dinner together.”
Despite boasting a membership of more than 700, Rabbi Tobias recognises that without any special event, a regular Friday service at his synagogue draws in a mere handful of people. It is only with the inclusion of food that he can be confident in attracting well over a minyan.
“Welcoming the Sabbath is an integral element of Judaism and to do so as part of a community adds value and a sense of connection to the observance,” he explains. “It is of great importance to us to be able to offer this, because for most it’s the only time they welcome Shabbat.”
Nevertheless, Rabbi Mendel Cohen of the Saatchi Synagogue in St John’s Wood believes that it is easier now than ever to convey the magic of Shabbat given how hectic and technology-driven our lives are day-to-day. “Switch off, be with those who love you, get in touch with who you are, do what you want for a change and not what mass and social media and the advertising industry think you should,” he stresses. And for Rabbi Cohen, Friday night is the very best time to feel its magic.
“The Friday night service is joyful, spiritual and the moment of transition from the weekday havoc and business to the freshly-showered, new-clothed peacefulness of welcoming Shabbat,” he explains.
For his 270-strong membership, bi-monthly Ruach services in people’s homes provide the perfect opportunity to reflect this. “First, it is informal. Second, it brings community members to each other’s homes; opening them up and making them feel closer,” he adds.
“We have children running in the garden, while we sing as the sun sets. Chicken soup is cooking in the background and the smell and feel of Shabbat is in the air. Finally, our whisky before and after always ensures that everyone is happy.”
At one of the United Synagogue’s largest community’s, Borehamwood & Elstree, Rabbi Amos Azizoff’s focus is on creating an “electrifying atmosphere” for the many people who flood the Croxdale Road building each Friday evening. “Shabbat is such a selling point in our current world,” he says.
“It is a precious day when you can relax and enjoy the blessings God has given you. Make sure you don’t miss this opportunity to switch off from the week and switch on to Shabbat.” While undoubtedly the purpose and success of Shabbat UK is the coming together for one special weekend to engage with Judaism, the ripple effect into our daily lives is welcomed by project director Rabbi Daniel Rowe.
“Individuals have deepened their engagement with their Judaism and/or with their communities,” he concludes.
“Different types of communities have maintained ongoing connections and relationships. Newcastle Hebrew Congregation is a typical ‘mainstream’ Anglo-Orthodox community. Down the road Gateshead is a yeshivah community. The two came together for the first time on Shabbat UK, and have since had events together throughout the year.
“As Jews, we have two gifts: those values we share with the world around us; and those that are unique to being Jewish. In the past we’ve come together to loudly proclaim our commitment to values that we share with the world – and rightly so. But now we’ve also come together in the largest celebration of that which is unique to Judaism.”