Brian Solomon is the Religious & Cultural Vice President of NFTY NAR.
This Fall Kallah, we took a new approach to our services. We swapped our Sunday services with our Saturday services, and our Friday night services consisted more of community-building activities than of prayer. The biggest change, though, was in our mindset in approaching the services; instead of thinking of services as individual moments for meaningful experiences, I thought about using services to support the participants in having a meaningful weekend. The trademark characteristics of NFTY — inclusion, tears, cuddling, bright eyes, elation – were there that weekend, in their most genuine forms. But this time, the entire trajectory of the weekend, from the buses leaving the bus stop to the buses arriving at the bus stop, supported the formation of a community.
Needless to say, this weekend’s services were not average. On Friday night, we removed recognizable characteristics like chairs, siddurim, the ark, and the lack of movement. We spent forty minutes making shapes as a community; we impressively stood in and transitioned between a septagon, concentric circles, a heart, and a full circle, using the shapes as a means to express the prayers with our body and with the community. We stood in a septagon to represent the week while singing “L’cha Dodi”. We walked in concentric circles while chanting the “Shema” to feel the solidarity of the community. We broke out of shapes altogether because that freedom is a freedom that we have, and we sang about it with the “Mi Chamocha.” But what really struck me was when we literally lay down for “Hashkiveinu,” a NAR favorite. We took a deep breath and witnessed as the familiar peace of Shabbat fell over the NAR community.
Friday is when participants either reunite with their best friends or gradually become acquainted with new ones. Saturday, people start to build relationships, and the community starts to build a bond. NFTY-NAR always loves the opportunity to choose from a diverse range of t’filot, because they invite participants to bring a friend and explore. We love taking our friends to an experience that dares us to be unfamiliar, that dares us to reflect. These services may include an attractively secular frame (the finger-painting service had to send people away because too many people wanted to come) and are more intimate, making the services more relaxed and more enjoyable. We dismantle monotonous Jewish prayers and the stigma of religion from our t’filot. So, when we came together as a community for the Torah service – and for the rest of the weekend – we were ready to give our hearts to it.
On Sunday morning, I stood in front of the unified region for morning services. We were relaxed; we were waking up; we were thoroughly loving it. How many groups of teens are there in the world do you hear about thoroughly loving prayer? We even reflected on three writing prompts here and there, making the region more cognizant of the themes in their prayers. And then, I challenged NAR. I took all of the prompts that we had discussed – appreciation of our bodies, freedom, and aspirations – and turned them into stories of gun violence. I explained that we say “N’Sim B’Chol Yom,” the prayer of daily miracles, to remind us of people like Laureano, a bodybuilder, a specimen, a miracle of a body, shot in the line of fire by the police while protecting his girlfriend from an assailant. I explained that we sing “Mi Chamocha,” the prayer rejoicing in our freedom, because people like Sam Pozner were free as could be until the Newtown massacre left him bloodied and deceased. I explained that we took a moment for our own “T’Filat HaLev,” because people like Shaquise Buckner, a young girl with aspirations and a vision to leave south side Chicago, murdered in a drive-by shooting, can no longer pray their heart’s prayer. NAR immediately recognized that the things that they had appreciated all of Kallah, all of the community around them, should be an impetus for action, as an expression of their gratitude.
And I left them with a message, for that service, for that Kallah, and for their life: despite your tears and your sympathy, do not let these stories let you lose hope. This community around you will enable you to make a difference. If you have a vision for what you want to change in the world, use a community. With the love, passion, and courage of a blessed group like NFTY-NAR, you can have a profound impact.