Making it Cool (and Meaningful) to go to Shul

“Shabbat Club” Engages Children and Families With Unique T’fillah Experiences

by Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal

What do colored stickers and ice cream have to do with enhancing Shabbat experiences for families and making it more likely that they will come to synagogue? A lot, if our experience this year with Shabbat Club – the name given to our Shabbat services and programming geared at families – is any indication.

Shabbat Club was born out of a desire for increased participation by children and families in Shabbat programming at the synagogue. It also fit into the educational goals of our religious rchool, to give the children and families real world experiences with what they are learning in the classroom.

The first thing we did was to create a regular schedule for Shabbat Club — the first Friday and Saturday of every month — and publicize the schedule. This is important because it allowed families to know exactly when things were happening and to plan their schedules accordingly. We made Saturday morning attendance a mandatory part of religious school, but opened Shabbat Club up to any families in the community who wanted to attend. We have had a good mix of religious-school and day-school families in attendance.

Once they are in the room, the second thing we did was to create a service that was meaningful and engaging for both kids and adults. Children have to see that what they are learning in religious school or day school is relevant to their lives, so they are the ones who lead the Junior Congregation service. We have a board with the names of all the prayers velcro-ed onto it, and as the children come in, they choose the prayer they want to lead. We don’t do every prayer, but we do enough to make the services feel complete; we also read three small aliyot of Torah. We conclude with the mourner’s kaddish at the end, so that any parent who needs to say it feels that they can.

Allowing children to lead and giving families access to Torah and the structure of the service makes it meaningful for everyone in the room. We canceled religious school the Sunday after a Shabbat club, so that families would not have to bring their children two days in a row and could focus on these special services as vital to their children’s education. Requiring kids to lead raises the bar, so that when they are practicing prayers in religious school, they know they will have the opportunity to lead them for peers and parents on Shabbat, regardless of their grade level.

In addition to services geared specifically at children and families, we wanted to raise the level of attendance and participation at regular Shabbat Friday night, Saturday morning and Saturday evening services. As a piece of Shabbat Club, we created the Minyanaires. Each child name is posted on a board outside of the sanctuary. When they come to services, they put a sticker next to their name (a different color for each segment of Shabbat).

When they have reached 10 services, they are officially a Minyanaire, and they get their name called during announcements, recorded in the congregational newsletter, and placed in the local Jewish newspaper. When they reach 13 services, they are invited to an ice cream party, and when they reach 18 services they are inducted into the Minyanaires Hall of Fame. These children get their name on a plaque that hangs in the synagogue and they receive an $18 gift card to a store of their choice. All three levels of the Minyanaires club are also recognized at Minyanaires Shabbat, which is the last Friday night of the year, with a role in services and celebrations at a special Shabbat dinner for all the families.

Much of the success of Minyanaires comes from publicly recognizing kids who reach the services milestones. Kids love to be recognized in any context, and can often feel invisible at services. This allows them to shine simply by showing up. In addition, parents want to see their child’s name in print, so they feel encouraged to bring their children to services. This first year, we did not set the number of services very high, so that it felt like an achievable goal, even as we were creating a culture change. In following years, we plan to increase the number of services students need to be in the Minyanaires, get the ice cream party, and be inducted into the hall of fame.

Although the push for services attendance for families is a change for this community, I can identify three reasons for its importance . First, we created a goal that was easy to attain. Our synagogue has three services every Shabbat, so getting to ten over the course of the year is not difficult. Second, we refocused the Hebrew curriculum on Siddur Hebrew, so that it would meet our goals of increased participation in services. This allowed services to become a living laboratory for what the children are learning. Finally, we made it a big deal – we send home fliers and emails every time there is Shabbat Club and recognize children who attend services in numerous ways. This allows everyone in the community to know what our priorities are, and for students to know that they will be appreciated and enriched by their attendance at Shabbat services.

Rebecca_Rosenthal.jpgRabbi Rebecca Rosenthal is the Director of Education at Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso, Texas. She was ordained at JTS in 2009. She thanks Wendy Light, Educational Consultant for Framework for Excellence for USCJ, for inspiring the Minyanaires. Before moving to Texas, Rebecca worked at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City, leading children’s services and Junior Congregation and helping to connect families to meaningful Jewish prayer.

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