The beauty and warmth of Shabbat stretched across an entire geographic region when a monthlong community initiative "Let's Celebrate Shabbat Across Bucks County" was observed at 12 area synagogues throughout September.
While each participating congregation (Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist) tailored programming to fit particular needs, the end result yielded what it had intended - the creation of family-oriented activities that translated to an energized community.
"Our goal was to welcome underaffiliated Jewish families and reconnect those already affiliated," explained Janet Kraus, coordinator of the Kehillah of Bucks County: A Jewish Federation Community Collaborative (formerly B'Yachad) that administered the program. "We also wanted Shabbat to be one of the holidays that we celebrate in the community."
The Kehillah is a collaborative partnership between Federation, synagogues and Jewish agencies, and is part of Federation's Center for Jewish Life and Learning. Kraus explains that this initiative is reflective of a center goal to reach out and connect with families with young children.
Kraus worked closely with Rabbi Jeff Pivo of Congregation Beth El in Yardley to bring the vision to fruition. As rabbinical liaison and co-chair of the program, Pivo recruited his colleagues throughout the county.
In planning for an array of events, a recruit-a-thon was held in July asking Bucks residents who had previously attended Jewish programming to partake in one of the many Shabbat celebrations across the region. Additionally, in late August, Rabbi Philip Warmflash, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Partnership, led a workshop for the staff of participating synagogues.
Kraus says the idea for a Shabbat program evolved following a two-year relationship with JOP, where significant outreach to families took place through "Let's Celebrate" and public-space holiday programs.
Elana Rivel, director of education and outreach for JOP, says the success of the program "shows what a unified Jewish community Bucks County has become."
Programming was as varied as the congregations in the county. Kelly Statmore, administrator and membership chair of Kehilat HaNahar, the Little Shul on the River in New Hope, described their open house and covered-dish vegetarian dinner on Sept. 2 as a "phenomenal success." A member of the Reconstructionist shul for 12 years, she recalled the evening as one filled with warmth, family and enthusiasm.
"It was so exciting to see people reconnecting," she said, adding that the shul has signed on new members as a result.
Congregation Beth El hosted a cantorial Shabbat. The Conservative synagogue of 250 families does not have its own cantor, but several times a year hosts a cantorial student from the Jewish Theological Seminary. So by featuring the cantorial student in its programming, they designed a family service geared toward young children, as well as a more traditional Shabbat-morning service followed by a luncheon.
And Congregation Tifereth Israel's Kabbalat Shabbat program "Live From Bensalem … It's Friday Night!" also had rave reviews and a good turnout. With instrumental music led by Rabbi Jeff Schnitzer, a traditional evening service was followed by a community dinner.
Kraus described feedback from area synagogues as "glowing."
Pivo noted that such a positive partnership between Federation and the synagogues creates a welcoming environment for people when they are ready to more fully engage in Jewish life.
It is hoped by organizers that "Let's Celebrate Shabbat Across Bucks County" will become an annual event.
For more information, call Janet Kraus at 215-579-9300, Ext. 15.