The Total Shabbat Experience

by Howard Lev

Keeping the temple calendar up-to-date is like trying to change the tires on a moving car. On Friday, January 11, it seemed that the calendar was moving at lightning speed and running behind it with a marker trying to add more events was our temple administrator.

On our calendar, Tot Shabbat is on the second Friday of every month.  January 11 was the second Friday of the month.  The traditional Shabbat service also was scheduled for January 11.  This date was the one selected for the indoor picnic as well.  Tot Shabbat would begin at 5:30 p.m., the picnic at 6:30 p.m. and the Shabbat service at 8 p.m.—the total Shabbat experience.

Our Tot Shabbat is designed for the early-to-bed, come-in-your-pajamas crowd.  In a more condensed service and relaxed atmosphere, where giggling children are the norm, the rabbi and cantor are joined by a song leader and a congregant on percussion.   A stuffed Torah and other child-friendly props are added to make participation easy and fun for everyone.  The “big kids” have as good a time as their children. Indeed, the January 11 Tot Shabbat proved to be another joyous and fun celebration of Shabbat.

A bit of background about our indoor picnic:  A few years ago, in an attempt to attract more congregants to summer services and accommodate those who could not attend the beach service, we planned a Friday evening Shabbat picnic on the temple lawn.  We emailed notices and promoted it in the local papers, but someone forgot to alert Mother Nature.  That first year, because of excessive heat, the picnic was moved indoors to our air conditioned social hall.   It was such a success that congregants wanted to know why we had to wait until the next summer to have another one, and thus our indoor shelag Shabbat was born!

This year, even though Mother Nature gave us rain, our spirits could not be dampened!  Congregants fought back, bringing big pots of homemade soups—mushroom barley and split pea among them—for all to share.  Dinner included traditional picnic foods—fried chicken, sandwiches and salads, brought from home (or the local deli).  We set up beach chairs and blankets in the social hall, with tables and chairs available for those not inclined to recline on the floor.  Families mingled and swapped stories and children played, creating a relaxed atmosphere that spilled over into our 8 p.m. service.

We remained in the social hall for the service, celebrating Shabbat with “Visual T’filah,” a service that uses PowerPoint to project the liturgy onto a large screen on the stage.  Rather than following along in a siddur, this format, as one congregant aptly put it, lets everyone see the community with whom they are praying.  While participants maintained the informal, picnic atmosphere on their blankets and beach chairs, a portable ark—donated by the 2012 Confirmation class—with a Torah was brought in from the sanctuary.  With the youth and adult choirs lending their voices, the rabbi and cantor led a warm, wonderful and participatory service.

Because tradition is as much a part of temple life as are innovative services, our worship was followed by an oneg, complete with cookies, challah and (my favorite) babka, making the evening the total Shabbat experience.

Howard Lev is a member of Temple B’nai Torah of Wantagh on Long Island, N.Y., where he serves on a number of temple committees, including the Religious Education Committee.

Photo by Simon Rosenblatt