It was the kind of day you wish for all winter long — hot, sunny, with a gentle breeze that dried perspiration just as it started to form on brows and noses. The ocean was as calm and clear as a wading pool, and the weekend crowds hadn't yet begun to fill up Margate, N.J.
But instead of relishing the great outdoors on this last Friday in July, a large group of children — hundreds, in fact — squiggled as they sat on the auditorium floor of the Milton and Betty Katz Jewish Community Center of Atlantic County, and readied themselves for one of their favorite times of the week: the start of Shabbat.
This afternoon, in addition to songs and cheers and, for the preschool set, the celebration of a "mock" Shabbat with candles and challah, the boys and girls of Camp by the Sea awaited a special treat: A dance troupe from Israel was scheduled to perform.
The lights dimmed, the teenage girls from the group Shoham padded on stage in bright colors, and the next hour was given over to traditional and modern dances set to Israeli music. The little girls in the audience could barely contain themselves while the boys … well, the boys either patiently observed or took a rest.
Either way, if this wasn't their thing, there's always something on the agenda for next week.
Josh Cutler, director of the day camp, which enrolls about 500 children between the ages of 21/2 and 14, said a "kid-friendly Shabbat" is always on the docket. More than that, Jewish culture and Israel are major themes there.
"Kids get Israel five days a week," said Cutler, in his third summer as director. "They can take 'Israel' as an elective and experience authentic food in a Bedouin tent, for example; there's blue-and-white day and Israel army week for Color War. We keep it varied and interesting. After all, it's our busy season down here."
And busy it was a few hours later — and several streets over — at Congregation Beth Judah in Ventnor. On a night you'd expect people to be harboring all kinds of evening plans in this resort town, cars started pouring into the parking lot of the Conservative synagogue. Folks were coming for something new — call it services with a twist.
"We just began it this year," said Rabbi Aaron Gaber, referring to "Beth Judah Alive!," a monthly Friday-night service that features music and a bit of merriment. "It's been amazing; the first service, in June, was attended by 350 people — it was standing-room-only!"
This evening featured a guest, Cantor David Propis of Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, the largest Conservative congregation in America. He joined Beth Judah Cantor Alan Smolen, as well as a pianist, guitarist, percussionist and female singer, in old-style and revamped Jewish tunes that at some points had worshippers literally clasping hands and dancing in the aisles.
A solid 200 or so people had shown up, and many were staying afterward for a congregational dinner.
Beth Judah also sponsors beach-side services, aptly named "Devotion by the Ocean." One was held jointly in mid-July with Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, and another is set to take place this month with Adath Israel in Merion Station. It's a way, acknowledged Gaber, of melding Philadelphia with South Jersey in the warm-weather months.
Temple Emeth Shalom Reform Congregation in Margate also hits the beach on certain Friday nights.
"It's spectacular," attested Rabbi Gordon Geller. "We start them early, at 6:30 p.m. And we note the poem by Hannah Senesh, 'Eli, Eli, the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters. I pray that these things never end … .' We sing that hymn, and people are looking at the sand, the beach and the horizon — it's very, very moving."
Of the bump in attendance, Geller said that "we're very, very busy. Most of the shuls in America are winding down in summer, and we go the other way. We have our largest minyans — twice or more the size on Sabbath eve.
"And we're flooded with 'shoobies,' " he noted, using slang for Philadelphians, who he explained commonly used shoe boxes to carry their midday meals to the beach.
Speaking of meals, what better place to have a Saturday-afternoon kiddish than in a restaurant? That's what Chabad at the Shore does, holding services and lunch in the Jerusalem Glatt Kosher Restaurant in Ventnor.
Typically, about 40 to 50 people attend, according to Rabbi Avrohom Rapoport, who has begun, with his brother Rabbi Yossi Rapoport, a new minyan halfway between the Margate and Atlantic City ones.
"We knew there was definitely a need to service more people in the summertime," he said. "We started last summer in Ventnor, and have kept it up through the winter."
The idea of services in the restaurant came from its owner, Jacob Ben-Shitrit, after a rental space that Chabad was using no longer sufficed.
"It's a centerpoint for anyone who doesn't want to drive to shul," said the rabbi. And there's something very haimische about it, added Rapoport, who aims to "create a place where every Jew connects to Yiddishkeit."
Once they get a building, he insisted that "the minyan will grow that much more."
In the meantime, they're formulating children's programs, and every Friday morning during the summer, youngsters can bake challah at Chabad's Crafts for Kids storefront in Margate.
But you better hurry, because come September, life at the shore settles down to the dull roar of the ocean, wondering where all the beachcombers have gone.