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Keeping the Jewish spirit flourishing at home
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Keeping the Jewish spirit flourishing at home

Educators offer books, holiday kits, and ideas to help people engage with Judaism on their own turf

Rabbi Lois Ruderman in a congregant’s home with students looking at tzitzit like the ones they will tie for tallitot of their own.  Photo by Carol Dickert
Rabbi Lois Ruderman in a congregant’s home with students looking at tzitzit like the ones they will tie for tallitot of their own. Photo by Carol Dickert

Ten years ago, Rabbi Lisa Malik of Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen participated in an activity that powerfully influenced her rabbinate. Both clergy and teen attendees at an interfaith event were asked to bring in a ritual object from their faith traditions.

“Quite a few of the Jewish kids brought in kiddush cups,” Malik told NJJN. She contrasted this home-based ritual object with the chalice brought by a Christian clergyperson, which looked like a kiddush cup, but was used in a ceremony he conducted in church on his congregation’s behalf.

“After I had this experience, I remember thinking it is important to remind people that Judaism is a home-based religion,” Malik said. One way she does so is by inviting congregants to her home for a Shabbat meal or a holiday dinner.

There are many ways that educators are inspiring families to bring Judaism into their homes, whether it is an invitation to Shabbat at the rabbi’s home, books and music sent to families by PJ Library, a Jewish movie night, or other means of inspiring engagement.

PJ Library works to increase Jewish engagement at home with the Jewish-themed books and music it provides monthly to 3,000 children in the Middlesex and Monmouth communities. Its packages include explanations of the books’ Jewish content as well as recipes, holiday decorations, and craft ideas.

The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, with support from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, has two new programs under the PJ Library umbrella that bring together Jewish families in people’s homes. One is a “get together” grant of $100 for families to do something social or Jewish with their friends, which can often be home-based Shabbat dinners and Chanukah celebrations. A second program will engage four parent ambassadors to encourage families in their neighborhoods to gather at people’s homes for a joint activity, such as making challah.

“It works really well because it’s parents engaging other parents,” said Inbar Singal, who is the community engagement manager at the federation.

PJ Library is ideal for “people who don’t know where to start. Sometimes a book with a story is a good conversation starter,” said Stella Stanway, who is the educational director of Temple Beth Miriam in Elberon. Families that are already tuned into Judaism, Stanway said, are often open to many different ways of engaging. She recommends checking denominational websites for suggestions on how families can engage in Shabbat and holidays. Another idea is to attend informal educational events at local congregations, such as Tot Shabbat services.

Students decorate a sukkah at Temple Beth Miriam in Elberon. Photo by Stella Stanway

For Rabbi Donald Weber of Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro, “one of the keys to all Jewish life is Shabbat,” which for him is about rest, family, and giving thanks, he said. But he finds that “sometimes people are scared away from the idea of Shabbat.” Weber promotes family engagement with the holiday by inviting people to imagine what a day of rest would look like to them — perhaps eating Shabbat dinner as a family, or, for families with young children, spouses switching off child care to give each other some alone time.

Both federation and local Hebrew schools are sending home kits that deliver Shabbat and holidays “in a box.” At community-wide federation events, families sometimes create ritual objects they can use at home, like a Havdalah kit. Federation is also creating holiday and Shabbat information boxes that can be borrowed. “Shabbat in a box” is full of resources such as song lyrics, blessings, candlesticks and candles, wine, and a cup that families can decorate and use for Kiddush.

Melissa Pescatore, educational director at Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan, sends home Shabbat boxes with students, and a class journal goes home weekly with one student, who is asked to write or draw a picture about Shabbat at home.

Another way to make the connection between Judaism and the home is to hold synagogue events in people’s homes. Congregation Kol Am of Freehold celebrates “Shabbat on the Go” on Friday nights in the summer. The popular event takes place in the backyard of a different family’s house each week, Rabbi Lois Ruderman said, and features a potluck dinner, informal teaching, a full service often with a new prayer melody, and dessert. Host families pick a theme and often invite neighbors to join.

Ruderman suggested a different medium to help parents and children bond at home through a Jewish activity: the omnipresent screens in our lives. She suggests that families commit to a Jewish movie night, watching films like “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” a fictionalized version of Israel’s rescue of Jews from Ethiopia and Sudan, or older movies such as “Exodus” and “Schindler’s List.”

“Why,” she asks, “can’t we use our fixation on screens to teach something about our current and former history?”

That’s a lesson well-suited to a cozy family night at home.

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