When Benjamin Sacks steps up to the bimah for his Bar Mitzvah in 2016, he and his family plan to use the blue yad — or Torah pointer — the 6-year-old made with modeling clay during a recent hands-on workshop.
For now, the pointer — adorned with bubbles, lightning strikes and rockets — occupies pride of place in the Sacks home in Levittown, along with a beeswax candle the family braided by hand for the observance of Havdalah.
Benjamin and his parents, Andy Sacks and Trish Haws, members of Congregation Tifereth Israel of Lower Bucks County, were among 100-plus participants in "Judaism in January," a project of the Kehillah of Bucks County.
The Kehillah is a collaboration of 16 synagogues and other organizations brought together by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
The program at Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation in Newtown encouraged families to engage in activities about the day of rest, as well as other topics, in a setting that participants said was both fun and creative, serious and lively.
Howard Cohen, lay volunteer program chairman for the Kehillah, said that the classes featuring Shabbat were among the biggest draws, and this school psychologist by trade affirmed that he believes he knows why.
"I think people could be intimidated because they don't know what's expected of them" regarding ritual observance, he said. "Teaching programs lessens this anxiety; the more you get involved, the less intimidating it is and the more you can enjoy the experience."
From providing Shabbat "buddies" who lead the uninitiated step by step through a Saturday-morning service to offering an ambitious and multifaceted "Shabbat University," area synagogues are finding that the holiest of Jewish days can serve as a teachable moment — and more.
"We know that Shabbat is a powerful transformative experience," said Rabbi Philip Warmflash, executive director of the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education/Jewish Outreach Partnership. "Just as during the seder they say that in every generation each person should feel as though he's coming out of Egypt, in the American Jewish community today, the challenge for synagogues is to help each person have the same kind of experience as they celebrate Shabbat."
"On a scale of one to 10, I'm at least a 7.5 in terms of observance," said Ben's father, Andy Sacks, who works in facilities management at a local hospital. "We always celebrate Shabbat, even if we have to rush through it. We've recently increased our level of observance, so this program came at a very good time for us."
The Havdalah workshop they signed up for at "Judaism in January" allowed members of his family to deconstruct the ceremony that ritually divides Shabbat from the rest of the week. The following Saturday evening, they would put their handcrafted candle to use as they ushered out Shabbat together at home.
Beth Pisk of Narberth classifies herself as a "beginner" regarding the ins and outs of Shabbat observance. Though she and her husband, Glenn, grew up in Conservative households, over the years, they had essentially drifted away from the practice of candle-lighting, making challah and hand-washing.
So when Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley conducted its first "Shabbat U" over a recent two-week period, Pisk was ready to reconnect.
"My heart fills up with warmth and happiness at the whole thought of it," said Pisk, mother of 8-year-old Eli and a part-time pharmacist whose participation in a series of four classes with Beth Am's Rabbi David Ackerman inspired her to buy flowers, break out her finest linens and bless the bread one recent Friday evening at home.
And that was the whole point, said Ackerman, religious leader of the 340-family synagogue and a prime mover behind the Shabbat program.
"We were looking to create ways to help people become more familiar with the table rituals, invite one another to their homes and build internal connections," the rabbi said, adding that several hundred congregants took part in dozens of how-to workshops, learning sessions and community gatherings, many led by knowledgeable local volunteers.
Among the selections were "Jewish Ritual Items," "Shabbat in Literature," "Challah-Making 101" and "Discover Fine Wines to Fill Your Kiddush Cup."
Ackerman stressed the value of congregants teaching congregants.
"It's kind of like those MasterCard commercials: It's priceless," he said. "It has a deep and powerful impact. Jewish life is meant to be lived out in the community, and by having congregants reaching out and learning from one another, community gets created."
Andy Szabo has been a member of Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford for about two decades, including a stint as president. He organizes his synagogue's "Taste of Shabbat" program, which encourages members to gather in each others' homes after Saturday-morning services to share a potluck lunch, discuss the Torah portion, chant nigunim (traditional tunes without words) and recharge after a hectic week — all while exploring the foundations of Shabbat.
"We have a set formula: challah, basins for washing hands, certain kinds of hors d'oeuvres," Szabo said of the monthly sessions that draw between 10 and 20 participants for two hours or so.
These so-called "Learning Shabbats" or "Beginners Shabbats" are nothing new to the local synagogue landscape. But take, for example, what's happening over at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton, N.J. There, Linda Kirwan, a member of the ritual committee, is introducing a buddy system designed to provide a mentor to walk new members through the intricacies of a Shabbat service.
The arrangement is all about making the davening experience as accessible and comfortable as possible, she said.
"I realized there are people who feel constrained from going to services because they're not sure what's going on. I was one of those people years ago," said the resident of Marlton. "I remember how awkward it felt when I began going, and I just wanted to help other people."
As she explained: "Your buddy will meet you at the door, sit with you, tell you what part of the service we're in, explain the flow of the service and put you at ease so you never have to feel out of place, because no Jewish person should ever feel out of place in a synagogue."
Piggybacking on the national "Shabbat Across America" program (see sidebar on Page 9), a synagogue in Yardley is offering "Shabbat Across Kol Emet."
Rabbi Howard Cove explained that the home-based initiative pairs families as either hosts or guests at a series of Friday-evening dinners, where they eat, pray, talk, sing — and learn. Launched the second week in January, the program has attracted almost two-dozen families.
"What we have found over the years is that Jewish adults didn't have the Sabbath experience, didn't know where to start to create that for themselves," said Cove, who leads Congregation Kol Emet. "They're intimidated by the unknown."
Senior Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin had a similar concern at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, where he and Rabbi Andrea Merow joined hands with congregational leaders to create the "Shabbat Experience."
Now in its second year, the program encourages members to focus on a different mitzvah each month — a session on Martin Luther King Day weekend, for example, explored the idea behind rodeph shalom, of "pursuing peace" — through texts, meditation and workshops.
In fact, the pilot program won a $30,000 grant from the Legacy Heritage Fund.
The fund supports roughly 40 synagogue-based educational programs across all Jewish denominations in the United States, Israel and Germany, with emphasis on initiatives connecting diverse age groups and fostering collaboration among staff and lay leaders.