Creating a Chag Community—Yamah Vakedmah Tzafonah Vanegbah

Vesamachta bechagecha—And you shall rejoice on your festival day. (Deuteronomy 16:14)

Being a student at a Jewish day school includes extra days off school for chagim—not only the high holidays, but also chagim such as Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. In many cases, rather than a time for the school to come together, the chagim are a time when the students scatter in many different directions. For a few families, this day off is an opportunity to take their child with them to shul to celebrate with their religious community. However, for families with working parents, this day off represents a scramble to find childcare or arrange playdates, several in a row, on weekdays. This can be stressful for the families, and in many cases the children do not end up celebrating the holiday they have spent weeks studying in school. Two years ago, Rockwern Academy took on this challenge by searching for an answer to the question: How do we support working parents while offering students a meaningful opportunity to celebrate our sacred holidays with their school community? The answer was collaboration, creativity, and coming together.

The working parents committee of Rockwern Academy, chaired by Rabbi Karen Thomashow, identified a need: childcare for students and opportunities for these students to celebrate the chagim. While the school may be closed on chagim, there are plenty of places in the Jewish community that are open on these sacred days: the synagogues! Although their offices may be closed, various batei kenesset around the city are celebrating the chagim with services, meals, and simcha and are happy to welcome a crowd of thirty enthusiastic pre-K through fourth graders into their sacred space. As a rabbinic fellow at Rockwern, my role was to craft and execute the vision for these holiday programs: joyous, educational celebrations of the chagim that combined school, students, and synagogue. My responsibilities included coordinating between the synagogues and the day school, designing the majority of the programming for the day, and organizing all program logistics.

This program began as a one-time Shavuot event at Wise Temple (Reform) where Rabbi Thomashow serves as the associate rabbi, and then expanded to include Rockdale Temple (Reform) and Adath Israel Congregation (Conservative). Our programmatic inspiration was summer camp. There would be plenty of fun activities, group bonding, and learning opportunities. Students participated in Torah-themed scavenger hunts, chag-friendly art projects, biblical skits, Maccabiah games, and making edible Torahs, sukkot, and even rain scenes (in honor of the prayer for geshem included on Shemini Atzeret). We prayed, played, and celebrated together as a community within a community. Not quite school and not quite temple, we created a unique congregation consisting of Rockwern students from many different religious communities around the city.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayyetzei, Jacob dreams of angels going up and down a ladder, and God blesses him, saying, “Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants” (Genesis 28:14). We sang the musical version of this blessing at our Sukkot program, in honor of its naming four out of the six directions in which we shake a lulav. When we sang each direction, the students ran in the direction we named—at yamah they ran west, at vakedmah they ran east, etc. As I reflected upon this program, I realized that this blessing could be a geographical metaphor for our approach to creating our chag community. Starting from Rockwern, we looked west—yamah, to Hebrew Union College—to find enthusiastic staff members for our program. Then we headed back east—kedmah, to Wise Temple—for our first program on Shavuot 5777. That program was such a such a success that next we expanded, traveling north—tzafonah, to Rockdale Temple—for our second program on Sukkot 5778. A week later we headed south—negbah (and a little bit kedmah again), to Congregation Adath Israel to celebrate Shemini Atzeret. True to our legacy as Jacob’s descendants, we had spread out in every direction.

While most of our programming was self-contained, each congregation welcomed us into their prayer family that morning. With a mixture of blessing and noise, the students enthusiastically marched with the Torah or led “Adon Olam” for the community that had welcomed them to their sacred space. The sight of their descendants, the next generation of Jews, was a blessing to the largely older congregants who had gathered to pray that morning. Although this intergenerational component was not one of our program goals, it was a welcome byproduct of the collaboration between day school and congregation.

Creating occasional communities such as this one presents a unique set of challenges. With borrowed space, one-time staff, a limited budget, and different partners and stakeholders, there were many moving parts to fit together. I learned about the importance being highly organized when planning events like this one, but also flexible during the program itself. Having a well-thought-out schedule is what allowed us to make day-of changes such as incorporating additional movement breaks, shifting settings when necessary, and differentiating expectations for students with special needs. Another skill I honed during this process was communication. Ensuring that all our community partners shared common expectations and understood their responsibilities was key to our program’s success. The feedback we received has been overwhelmingly positive, and I hope that the foundational work and documentation of what I have done will allow these chag programs to continue for years to come.

Coordinating and planning these programs was a privilege, but most fulfilling, of course, was leading the programs themselves. By collaborating with Jewish partnersaround our city, yamah vakedmah tzafonah vanegbah, we were able to create meaningful opportunities for these students to learn, to play, and to fulfill the mitzvah of Vesamachta bechagecha.

Ally Resnik Jacobson, M.A.R.E. is a rising fifth-year student in HUC-JIR’s Rabbinical Education Program.

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