How can centering human experience help build communities of belonging, as well as a Shabbat community? On the day after synagogues were physically shuttered due to the pandemic, artist and spiritual educator Shira Kline of Lab/Shul partnered with Ellen Allard and the URJ in developing a weekly Shabbat morning online experience for families called Shabbat ShaMorning. As the program grew rapidly, the URJ built an online platform to host live and on-demand events. Now, online at RJ on the Go has made Shabbat ShaMorning part of the regular Shabbat routine for more than 50 families.
Together with design thinkers from BOOSH consulting, we asked participants – and young families who do NOT participate – what they wish for as they navigate raising their Jewish kids in our complex world. What we learned guides our continuing evolution. We believe the findings can help inform decision-making in congregations as well.
Embrace Human-Centered Design
From the outset, Shira and Ellen made programmatic choices based on human needs. They asked, “What is happening for parents right now? What is happening for children right now?” Observing that people were hungry for “a place for praying, crying out, laughter and release – a moment to experience joy,” they designed an experience that met those needs. One example of this is the symbolism expressed in their tallit ritual moment. “Thebecomes a hug because families need care, and love, and hugs. It’s like bringing the four corners of the earth together with us at the center… an embrace from our ancestors.”
These findings accord with the work of Amy Asin, URJ’s VP of Strengthening Congregations, and Rabbi Esther Lederman, Director of Congregational Innovation. In writing about the 5 major shifts congregations need to make to keep up with the changing times, they point out that each one centers on the human experience. “Addressing individuals’ needs, they write, “may require different skills and mindsets from leaders.” The key is to “embrace life-to-text approaches that engage people by starting with their lives.”
“There is so much about doing this on Zoom this year that has given us gifts that we could not even have predicted,” Ellen says. As you are fleshing out multiple scenarios for your congregations in the fall, let these lessons be a gift to you.
Here are four ways participants say that Shabbat ShaMorning touches them deeply.
Embodying Diversity & Belonging:
Participants have been effusive in their appreciation for the norming of diverse identities in a Jewish space. One parent shared, “They wouldn’t be able to articulate it, but my child is gender non-binary… Having [diverse gender identity] just be in the background [of Shabbat ShaMorning] is laying a foundation for my child that I feel sensitive to and grateful for.” Here, Torah is interpreted as inclusively as possible, embracing multi-ethnic and gender non-conforming voices in the characters. It is framed every week as, “the story of a family where some are born, and some come join – a story for everyone.”
There was tremendous interest by families with diverse and intersectional identities in speaking with us. About 25% reported have a family member who is LGBTQIA+. We spoke with parents who did not grow up with Judaism, parents whose first language is not English, those who do not identify as white. All are seeking Jewish spaces where they, too, see their identities reflected.
Relationships Are Everything:
For Ellen and Shira, it is paramount that kids and adults feel seen and loved, even via the screen. Moderators work the chat from start to finish, both on Zoom and on social media, helping to facilitate personal interactions.
“You see me coming close to the screen a lot,” Shira says. “Our goal is alive, dimensional experience where what we do on one side of the screen is solely to activate something on the other side of the screen.” Ellen emphasizes that while a core set list stays the same each week, she brings families into the experience by asking questions they then answer in the chat. “I just integrate their answers [into the song,]” she says. Multi-generational families in multiple households across multiple states wave and chat with each other. Relationships can be forged and nurtured in virtual settings when we create the structures to make it happen.
Marking Time During Chaos:
Responding especially to the blurring of time and the loss of routine that is typically characteristic of families with young children, we built a 30-minute Shabbat touchpoint with a reliable time and structure. We have completed an entire cycle of Torah. Each week, the storahtelling translation takes into account deeply what is relevant to families’ lives in real time. It has been remarkable how much each week’s story has spoken to the particular time we are in. We continue to consider what is still relevant, and what to change or stop doing because it no longer meets the need.
During a stressful time, families come together on Shabbat to be silly, have fun, and connect. Interpreting Jewish routines and rituals for developmentally appropriate access that our grown-up participants also share adds depth to their own experience of Judaism. It is child-centered without being childish. “As an educator, I might have a list of things I want to get through. This is not that. Go back to the purpose,” urge Shira and Ellen. This is love and joy in the form of music, movement, dialogue, Torah, and lots of hugs.
Shira and Ellen imagined this experience as a gift that they could give not only to families, but also to the early childhood educators, clergy, and other congregational leaders who were engaged in attending to other urgent needs of the moment. This is one need that trusted partners could fill. As families begin to venture out more, their needs may shift and our response may shift, as well.
Interested in exploring how Shabbat ShaMorning, RJ on the Go, or the lessons we’ve learned might be a gift to your stressed and stretched congregational leaders and meet the needs of families in your community? We’d love to hear from you!