Menu JTA Search

Behind the Headlines Israel is a Rewarding Place to Visit

SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING

Shabbat in Jerusalem is a time for reflection and a chance to seal some of the gaps that can weaken the foundation of a person’s Jewish identity. Young American Jews participating in the American Zionist Youth Foundation’s summer program try to fill these voids with insight by spending one Shabbat sampling the spiritual aspect of being a Jew.

“The ideas of the Shabbat program is to try and give the Jewish kids an opportunity to discover and experience a Shabbat in Jerusalem and Shabbat as Shabbat, and at the same time to use that program to increase their awareness about their own Judaism and Jewish identity,” said Charles Silverstein, a madrich (counselor) for the Shabbat program. Silverstein, 25, is in his second year of conducting Shabbat programs.

Over the course of two days, the group of about 30 participants in the program savors a traditional religious Shabbat that incorporates both rituals and thought-provoking games.

Led by male and female counselors, the program begins Friday morning when the group tours the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter of Jerusalem and the Jewish market. In the market, comprising dozens of stalls and eager vendors, the group has an opportunity to buy challahs, wine, candles, and cookies, while the counselors have a chance to get acquainted with the group.

ELEVATING THE SOUL

The Shabbat schedule resumes after the Friday morning initiation, about an hour-and-a-half before sundown. A tour of the Old City is combined with an introductory program on Shabbat and the historical background of Jerusalem. Silverstein emphasizes the teaching of songs as crucial to a meaningful Shabbat. “We believe singing elevates the soul,” he said. “It gives one a taste of what it is to feel Shabbat and an idea of what Shabbat is all about.”

Prayer is also important and there are two different approaches to exposing the group to Friday night services. If the participants can read Hebrew and have been to synagogue, they conduct a full service, Silverstein explained. For groups that are less knowledgeable in Hebrew, only parts of the service are performed and these sections are interpreted. “The idea is to get them to appreciate those aspects of Judaism they usually never see,” he said.

Saturday morning prayer services are voluntary, according to Silverstein, as is participation in all facets of the Shabbat program. After the services, the entire group of program participants has Kiddush together and then the identity program begins.

HEIGHTENING JEWISH AWARENESS

The remainder of the Shabbat program is devoted to heightening the individual’s Jewish awareness by means of various games. “We hope the games will inspire them to continue to discover more about the ideas we help to develop or reawaken,” Silverstein said.

In “value clarification” games, Silverstein said he poses questions that start the participants thinking about the ethics of Judaism and their Jewish identity. “We, in a nice way, get them to think about subjects related to Judaism and Jewish identity like assimilation, like God, like Jewish history, like the Holocaust, intermarriage, tradition, and the like,” Silverstein said.

One identity game personalizes their experiences as Jews. Silverstein requests that they discuss a time when they felt proud to be Jewish. “I get innumerable stories,” he said. “People actually start thinking about when they were proud to be a Jew or when they fought against anti-Semitism, or when they did a good deed.”

During the “survival” game, people must choose from a group of 30, five priorities they think are critical to the survival of the Jewish people. Then they find people with similar lists and form “political parties.” The aim is for the participants to prepare a platform representing their ideas and ultimately to argue and debate their reasons for choosing the various priorities.

In “situation” games, which Silverstein calls social dramas, people are chosen to act out certain roles in a given predicament.

For example, a girl introduces her gentile boy friend to her parents and announces that they are getting married. The father may be told to react violently while the mother does not object. “After the scene, we have a debate about the pros and cons of intermarriage.” Silverstein said. “We try to get people to realize it’s not one of those factors that’s going to ensure the survival of the Jewish people.”

AWARENESS OF ANOTHER DIMENSION

These and a host of other Jewish identity games are capped by a Shabbat-ending Havdalah service. Everyone sits in a circle with the lights out except for the Havdalah candle. “Each kid in the group has a chance to personally express what Shabbat meant for him or her.” Silverstein explained.

“The invariable result is that they had an amazing experience both from a spiritual and a group dynamic point of view. There was an awareness of another dimension within their being and of increasing spiritual bonds within the group,” he said.

NOT A MISSIONARY ORGANIZATION

While the program is a religious observance of Shabbat, Silverstein, who is Orthodox, emphasized that he and the other counselors extend Judaism as a sense of tradition. “We are definitely not a missionary organization,” he said.

“The Shabbat madrichim (counselors) do not aim to try and convert anybody to become religious. Rather, we would like to get the people to think about their own Judaism and inspire them to think about all different aspects of what their Judaism means in the hope that they will be motivated to discover on their own more about it and to go in the direction of becoming stronger Jews.”

The counselors also hope the participants will “resolve to belong to the Jewish nation; that they will feel part of the Jewish nation and that they’re proud to be Jews; and that they recognize the history is thousands of years old and they feel it; and what better place than in Israel and what better time than on Shabbat?”

NEXT STORY