When the sun sets on a particular Friday in late October, the Shabbat service at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County will sway to the sweet Yiddish melodies of childhood and the cadence of Yiddish phrases as the congregation enjoys the first in its year-long celebration of special Shabbat theme nights.
Dubbed “Friday Night Live,” the theme nights are a new initiative intended to unify a large, diverse congregation around spiritual and cultural commonalities.
Starting with a celebration of the rich vernacular of Yiddish through the “Shabbat Salute to Yiddish” on Oct. 20, the ongoing program will include a focus on Sephardic culture, rock music, country music and, in all likelihood, Broadway music. Organizers believe the Shabbat program will generate connections across generations.
“Friday night is a special service for most people because it’s usually the end of a long, stressful work week. It’s a service that gives us an opportunity to reconnect with family and friends and our synagogue family,” said Diane Pevar, third vice president at Ohev Shalom.
“Our young families are usually a strong presence at these Friday night services. We want to engage them in having fun and celebrating everything we do. We want them to look at how our heritage and Judaism connects to other things in the world. It’s not just our observances; it’s that those observances can connect us back to other aspects of the world and our traditions.”
The Friday Night Live program is a first for Ohev Shalom, a 400-family congregation some 30 miles north of Philadelphia that is affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. While special Shabbat programs have cropped up throughout the Delaware Valley and elsewhere, this one was inspired by Ohev Shalom Second Vice President Lindsay Miller.
Miller attended a theme Shabbat with her husband in Cape Town, South Africa over the summer and saw how effective the “very special atmosphere” was in attracting congregants who might not otherwise attend on a Friday.
The practice, she said, seemed to motivate community members to end their week at synagogue. In fact, Miller was so enthusiastic that she emailed Ohev Shalom about the idea while still abroad.
Pevar credits Ohev Shalom’s Rabbi Eliott N. Perlstein and Cantor Annelise Ocanto-Romo with brainstorming ways to infuse services with the themes. The service is “always” going to be about an hour, and its structure streams from the traditional prayers and blessings given at all conservative congregations. But there are ways to incorporate fresh material that can be both instructive and diverting.
Ocanto-Romo, Pevar said, is particularly adept at setting prayer to different kinds of music; the idea of using the wildly successful score of the Broadway play Hamilton as a vehicle for scripture has already occurred to those in the planning process.
As for the Oct. 20 Yiddish Shabbat, Pevar said the language is known but not spoken much anymore. She recalled her grandparents, both from Eastern Europe, reading Yiddish newspapers or conversing at local produce stands in the shared language.
Yiddish, the international language of Ashkenazi Jews that was spoken in Eastern Europe through the end of World War II, derives largely from medieval German. But it is inflected with Hebrew and other modern languages, and is written in an alphabet based on Hebrew characters. Today, it is spoken principally in Israel and Russia.
“While Israel is happily the spiritual center of our Jewish lives today, so many of us trace our roots to the rich Jewish world in Europe where Yiddish and Yiddish culture was the basis of Jewish life,” Perlstein said.
“We are always surprised at how many Yiddish words and expressions we know even if we don’t fully speak or understand Yiddish,” he added. “So many of us were raised hearing the Yiddish melodies of our parents and grandparents. We want to recapture this rich tradition and maintain it as the great treasure it is.”
Indeed, author Isaac Bashevis Singer told the world during his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1978, “Yiddish has not yet said its last word.”
Because Yiddish is not part of the Sephardic Jewish culture, Ohev Shalom will present a Sephardic Shabbat in November. A Chanukah Family Shabbat is slated for December; a rock Shabbat for February; a “music scholar-in-residence” Shabbat for March; and a country music family Shabbat and dinner for April. The Friday Night Live themes will continue throughout the year.
“We have an incredibly inclusive and diverse congregation. That has been a benchmark of our strategic planning,” Pevar said. “Since we have every age, every background, every kind of family structure, and many unique individuals, we want them all to be able to look across the aisle and bond over the fun.”
Asked how Ohev Shalom plans to celebrate the theme during the rock music Shabbat, Pevar said simply, “We’re just gonna get right out there and rock it!”
Wendy Plump is a freelance writer.