8 Key Elements of a Successful Interfaith Thanksgiving Service

Inside Leadership

8 Key Elements of a Successful Interfaith Thanksgiving Service

As we ramp up for Thanksgiving, engaged in the frenzy of planning a meal, inviting guests, or arranging our travel plans, it’s good to take a moment to reflect on the meaning of the holiday.

In my close-knit community, I get the chance to do that each year at an interfaith Thanksgiving service. Typically held on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving, it’s a precious time to meet with friends and neighbors, renew old ties, and appreciate the blessings of the past year. I’ve been fortunate to attend more than 10 of these services and have seen how the clergy coalition in my town puts together a successful event.

Here are some key elements to include in an interfaith Thanksgiving service:

  1. Diversity: Good interfaith services include clergy from various religious organizations, members of their congregations, and even leaders from the local homeless shelter and food pantry. Each year, a different organization can play host, inviting the community into its spiritual home.
  2. Text: Religious leaders should offer readings from their respective traditions, expressing gratitude, praising the Almighty, and encouraging tolerance and peace. Some favorites include selections from Psalms and the blessing of first fruits in Deuteronomy 26:1-11.
  3. Testimony: An evocative way to demonstrate the meaning of Thanksgiving is through personal testimony from an individual with a dramatic story of resilience in the face of adversity. Every year, my community hears from someone who has overcome great challenges with the help of the local homeless shelter.  
  4. Music: No service is complete without song. As at any other spiritual gathering, music helps keep attendees engaged as they absorb the spoken messages they’ve just heard. Music can also be used to provide structure to the service and bookend an event. Begin with a familiar tune learned in grade school, such as “We Gather Together,” and end with a patriotic perennial such as “America the Beautiful.” Feature a mix of performance and group participation, and consider ending with a resounding rendition of a crowd-pleaser such as Mosh Ben Ari’s “Od Yavo Shalom” (here starting at 5:37).
  5. Children: Invite children to participate in some way, whether it’s through performing in a choir, doing readings, or by recognizing their efforts in a tikkun olam project. My community recognizes the Boy Scouts, who are highly effective in persuading supermarket shoppers to purchase a few extra items for the food pantry. (They actually hand people a shopping list as they enter the store!) Children’s participation not only bolsters their confidence but reinforces the message to care for others.
  6. Contribution: This is a time of year when some of our neighbors’ cupboards are in desperate need replenishing. Make time during the service to collect money and nonperishable foods to donate.
  7. Proclamation: American presidents from George Washington on down have issued proclamations about Thanksgiving, and local community officials do it, too. Your interfaith Thanksgiving can include a proclamation read aloud by the mayor or a councilperson to appreciate the blessings enjoyed by the city and its residents.
  8. Refreshments: What event would be complete without food? Following the service, coffee and some baked goods are a welcome close to the service. Though it may not always be possible to accommodate the dietary requirements of every attendee, just having a forum where attendees can mingle is a nice way to bring the gathering to a close.
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Audrey Merwin is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism’s communication team. She edits Reform Voices of Torah, the Monday edition of Ten Minutes of Torah, sings in the United Synagogue of Hoboken choir, leads services, and teaches in the synagogue’s learning center. 

Audrey Merwin

Published: 11/20/2015

Categories: Audacious Hospitality, Program Ideas, Worship

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