A Shabbat Culture Change

In 2014, I was promoted to my current position after the departure of my senior rabbi. I had only served as the assistant for a little over a year. I knew nearly nothing about running a large synagogue. I had about three years of assistantships, with two different senior rabbis. I had spent a lot of time in rabbinical school soaking up wisdom and strategy from visits, local rabbis and professionals and personal mentors. But I was not ready for the day to day responsibilities of a senior rabbi nor the stratergic planning that comes with the opportunity. I was fortunate to have a president with a very specific set of skills to help mold my thinking. At the time of my promotion, I only knew one thing about the future of our synagogue: In order to remain viable, we would need to make changes.

Some of what I thought would be big decisions, were met with little resistance. In fact, the minimal push back I received evaporated fairly quickly. For example, I intended on changing our kitchen’s kashrut policies to reflect my own personal hashkafa (religious guiding principles). Why? Because how could I be the mashgiach (kosher supervisor) for a kitchen whose food I would not bring into my own home?

There were also large changes that were met with little resistance. For example, pivoting from an 8pm frontal musical service with an organ and choir. I, along with our cantor, knew that the 8pm time slot no longer worked for our young families and the shifting geopraphic layout of where congregants live. We wanted to shift towards a 6pm service and once a month, largely participatory, service. We did what we were supposed to do– we involved people in the process; we collected data; we phased out the old service by moving from weekly, to monthly; changed the time-slot with board approval. It worked.

After we succeeded with that Friday night transition, we put our full energy into re-examining other areas of the synagogue’s program. Of course there was resistance from some members of the congregation. But success is the great equalizer. As our attendance grew on Friday night and Shabbat morning, our veteran members saw that change is sometimes necessary. It also gave us the opportunity to create new musical initiatives like once a month visting musicians and our new Kehillat Shabbat morning service that is acoustic and in the round.

But the biggest change we made was moving Sunday school to Shabbat, something I am advocating for most, if not all synagogues to adopt. While culture change can have bumps in the road and create a few unhappy campers, ultimately, the net result of the change overcomes the concerns.

There were certainly some objections to moving our religious school to Shabbat. Here is how we dealt with each of those issues:

  1. Writing and Technology – We do not write on Shabbat. We have created an Ulpan-style Hebrew learning curriculum, grew our tefillah-based program and we have some informal education. We do some art, and there are some moments of tension between what our students are doing and my own religious desires. But most four-year-old children are not committing aveirahs (sins). Technology is a tool we use on weekdays. On Shabbat, learning is more interactive and the inherent omission of technology is a lesson in itself.
  2. Losing Out to Sports – I was very dedicated to playing sports throughout my childhood, so I understand the value of extra-curricular sports for children. Fortunately,  unless you are in a very small town, sports leagues are available almost every day of the week. It is important to train families to move their children’s sports engagement to one of the other six days of the week if they value Jewish education. Our synagogue had two brothers who were both present in the synagogue on shabbat morning on a regular basis. They were also captains of their football team! Synagogue leadership, starting with the rabbi, need to make the case for giving some priority to synagogue and Jewish education to their families.
  3. Participating in the shabbat service – When we shifted our religious school to shabbat morning, a few families raised a concern that their children would no longer be able to sit in services with their parents. This was not the view of many families. Most children much prefer being with their peers in a classroom to being in a religious service populated mostly by adults. Nonetheless, we did allow a few families to continue their practice of having their children with them during shabbat services. We simply made accommodations for those children for the class content that they missed as a result.

Ultimately, our leadership and most families came to see that the benefits of moving religious school to shabbat outweighed the downside. It is important to be able to name these benefits in a congregational setting in order to build consensus around such a change. Here were the three biggest positive impacts of the change:

  1. Immersive Education – There is a certain refrain that can be heard among Jews of all denominations: “Why can’t Hebrew School be more like summer camp?” Well, the answer is simple: Because it is not immersive. After camper activities, you go to your bunk, and after synagogue, you go home. However, Shabbat is immersive. After class, you go to the sanctuary. After the sanctuary, you go to kiddush. After kiddush you play with your Jewish friends.
  2. Less Dropoff Syndrome – When religious school takes place on Sundays it is hard to avoid it being a drop-off experience. On Shabbat, there is a place for both parents and children. Having entire families in the synagogue on a shabbat morning is a very powerful experience. As a rabbi and educator, Sunday sends a message that parents are not obligated in their Judaism. On Shabbat, parents are encouraged to stay and celebrate with the community. We offer classes and coffee, speakers, and (even) services. Our parents have responded quite positively by being present. Most importantly their children are growing up knowing that Judaism is not a random holiday here and there, rather a weekly event for the entire family to celebrate.
  3. Day School and Religious School – As a former day school student and now, a parent of one, there was always a clear social disconnect between public and day school students. Shabbat school has almost eliminated this issue. All of our students come together on Shabbat. They work through Hebrew, tefillah and community building. While our day school students will not have obligations during the week (until Bnai Mitzvah), they now have deep connections with their public-school friends.

There are other issues, but many are solved by a commitment to the vision. For example we lost two quality teachers who taught in our Sunday School because they had other teaching commitments on Saturdays. Also, our clergy stopped teaching in the school because they are on the bima on Saturdays. We gained more students because of the vibrancy of our program and, just as important, the parents are far more present and invested in their child’s Jewish education. Shabbat allows for parents to practice what they are preaching to their children.

This change at our synagogue has not only changed attendance on Shabbat, but also set an example for our students. It has changed the culture of our synagogue. Parents now stay weekly to share Shabbat with their friends and their children. They all congregate for a Shabbat meal after services. Some have made Shababt morning a part of their regular routine, even without school in session, something that was not imaginable to my lay leadership just five years ago.

Our synagogue is now a place you want to come to every Shabbat with your family. Our lounge is loud, our planning is focused, our children do not want to leave the building and, most importantly, our synagogue’s heart is beating once again.


Rabbi Jeremy Fine is the Senior Rabbi at Temple of Aaron in Saint Paul, MN. He was a part of CLI’s 3rd Cohort, creator of TheGreatRabbino.com and, in 2014, he was named one of the Jewish Daily Forward’s Most Inspiring Rabbis. @RabbiJeremyFine

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