In May 2010, Rabbi Michelle Robinson held a meeting at Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts, to find out why so few school-aged children showed up at Shabbat morning youth services. Although there was a thriving pre-school service, there never seemed to be more than a handful of school-aged kids at the service for them. Was the town’s amazing Saturday morning soccer program an insurmountable obstacle to a successful youth service?
The outcome of that meeting – a monthly lay-led family service – rejuvenated the youth services, brought the parents closer together, and strengthened their connection to Temple Emanuel. We even added to the synagogue’s membership roster! We hope our story will inspire you to imagine what might be possible at your own synagogue.
The idea for the Ruach Family Service took shape at that May meeting. A few parents, beginning with the understanding that working parents are away from their kids all week, said that they would like a family service so they could be together on Shabbat morning. Advocates of the family service described their vision – the room would have to be full. People had to know they would see their friends there. The service should be real. There would have to be a true a sense of kavannah – intention. It should be monthly and the families should participate. It would have to be special. If it were, families would make an effort to attend.
I had shown up at the meeting desperate for a service that my 8-year-old son could relate to. He did not like singing with the guitar in the youth service. The excitement in the room about a family service was palpable, and we knew we had to build on the momentum. I volunteered to lead the first family service and insisted that we have it right away – in July! Because there were no other kids’ services offered in the summer, it seemed simple enough to try it.
Given the emphasis placed on the importance of a full room, my main focus was to assign as many parts leading prayers as possible, so that families would commit to showing up. To make leading prayers exciting, we made illustrated laminated cards for each prayer – we call them honor cards. We added leadership cards, which the kids fill with star stickers for each prayer they lead. To entice the kids to attend, we advertised heavily, focusing on the makeyour- own ice cream sundaes with fun toppings that we’d have at the kiddush after the service. I also planned a question and answer session about the parashah, with candy for anyone who tried to answer a question. We sent out a lot of emails and sent up a lot of prayers.
We picked a small classroom because our expectations were low, but 30 people came and the room overflowed. The kids did a great job leading the prayers (with a little assistance) and they liked the questions (and the candy!). David Goldstone, one of the original proponents of the service, offered an important suggestion: “You need something for the parents. You need a d’var Torah,” and he agreed to give it himself each month. He also agreed to co-chair the family service and helped recruit more families for the next one. David mailed me highlighted copies of sections from Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s book, Empowered Judaism, stressing constant innovation as key to a successful community endeavor.
Because the classroom had been so full for that first service, we moved our next service to a social hall. “Shock and awe” is a perfect description of how we felt when 80 people showed up – in mid August! That’s when we knew the July service really had been a hit. David gave an engaging parashah summary and d’var Torah, and then I led a lively Q & A session and gave out Twizzlers. Both parents and kids loved it. During the prayer portion of the service, I handed out the honor cards while helping the kids lead the service, but soon we learned that leading and organizing the service at the same time was just too hectic. We needed more help.
Fortunately, more parents volunteered. Increasing parental involvement turned out to be key to our continued success. Parents who became more involved in organizing the service became committed to attending, growing the service while also preventing burn-out on the part of the original organizers. The many roles allowed people with various skills to participate in different ways.
David continued to give his Torah summaries and divrai Torah each month, and I kept my role as chazzanit and leader of the Q & A. Anthony Lehv sent out humorous (and serious) email announcements. Jenny McKee-Heinstein and Nicole Gann recruited kids to lead the kids’ parts. Julie Chivo premade name tags from lists of members and their school-aged children and greeted all who attended with a warm smile, so that everyone felt welcome. Michael Robinson read Torah so we could add a short Torah reading. Ana Volpi ushered the service – that is, she lined the kids up to minimize the time we spent waiting for each child to lead the next prayer. Marc Stober coordinated Torah readers, and Cheryl Stober created a Facebook page. Once we had more volunteers, we avoided duplication of efforts using a shared Google document, so that the organizers could enter each assigned part and everyone else could see it.
We innovated constantly. We chose a new room with a carpeted floor to limit the distracting noise of the wooden floor in the social hall. In addition to nametags, we started having each family introduce itself before Adon Olam to make sure that the service stayed warm and inviting. The synagogue staff and leadership were extremely supportive, not only of the service but also of the changes and new ideas.
The biggest stumbling block proved to be finding the right siddur. It was important to us to have a genuine service, with prayers in Hebrew and no musical instruments, which we felt made kids’ services too concert-like. When two parents separately confessed that they were struggling with the prayers, we realized that we needed a simpler siddur with a full transliteration. Rabbi Robinson suggested that we make our own. Marc Stober volunteered to be editor-inchief. To create artwork, we organized an art brunch on a Sunday morning at the synagogue. We provided paper, markers, and stencils. The parents ate bagels and chatted while the kids made magic.
The kids love seeing their own artwork in the siddur! In addition to making sure that there was a full transliteration and translation for every spoken prayer, Marc added such features as bold type for the parts the congregation sings together. Thanks to our siddur, the parents who needed transliterations have become regular attendees, and we have attracted many families with different levels of knowledge. In fact, one parent later confided to me that the reason she feels so comfortable with our all- Hebrew service is that because the kids are learning, she is not embarrassed that she is learning, too.
We are amazed to see how much everyone has learned. It truly has been incredible to see the kids, even the shy ones, coming forward to lead a prayer, with the whole room rooting for them, and to see their faces (and their parents’ faces) afterward, shining with delight. The kids have all become more confident with experience, and we now have several who can belt out multiple prayers.
To celebrate these accomplishments and the service’s first anniversary, we gave out personalized trophies with Jewish stars to all the kids. Now they have a concrete symbol that their effort at services is just as important as their effort on the soccer field. They also have enduring memories of fun, lively, beautiful Shabbat mornings spent at synagogue with family and friends.
After a few months working together, my husband and I invited the Goldstones over for Shabbat dinner. We realized that evening that creating our service also was about building community. We started extending more invitations, and the friendships that are developing have strengthened everyone’s ties to each other, to our service, and to Temple Emanuel.
The year after the founding of our service, the synagogue launched a monthly sixthgrade- led Discovery Service inspired by it. This new service is attracting 20 or 30 kids each month, an attendance level that would have been unthinkable two years ago. In addition, several non-affiliated families who heard about our service from friends and started attending have gone on to join our synagogue.
Founding the Temple Emanuel Ruach Family Service has enriched our lives as Jews, as families, and as a community and congregation. Now it’s your turn! Use our story as your blueprint. It’s an endeavor worth the effort. All you need is a minimum of three or four committed families, someone who can help lead the service, and someone who can talk about the Torah parashah. If you have someone who can chant a brief Torah excerpt, that’s a plus. Don’t forget the Twizzlers and ice cream, of course. Go ahead and try it.You are welcome to adapt our prayer book!
You can read more about ruach Shabbat family services and see the siddur at Temple Emanuel’s website. Go to templeemanuel.com/ruach-shabbat-family-services.