Shehechiyanu moment

Shifting a Shabbaton

By Josh Ull and Rena Sichel Rosen

When was the last time you did something for the first time? What does it take to make an ‘old’ experience new? While it’s easy to hit copy and paste each school year, the pandemic has challenged educators to rethink and reimagine, and The Leffell School has done just that, empowering our students to bring the magic of a shared Shabbat home to their families through a new Shabbaton at Home program.

At our school, Shabbatonim set the foundation for each school year by kick-starting new friendships, strengthening grade identities, and increasing each student’s understanding of and appreciation for Shabbat. While our classroom educators were able to return to some normalcy with in-person learning, these travel-based extracurricular experiences faced seemingly insurmountable restrictions. How could we find a way to measure up to the 25 hours typically filled with bonding through late-night conversations, spirited singing and dancing, and ice skating motzei Shabbat? We needed a Shehechiyanu moment — a moment to change our mindset and break past our comfort zones by challenging ourselves to innovate in ways we never thought possible. Thus the Shabbaton at Home project was born.  

Structured as a weeklong event to dovetail with our school schedule, we designed the Shabbaton at Home to hit a crescendo as Friday approached. Each day during Tefilah students and faculty discussed the significance of ritual items. The building then buzzed with activity as students crafted challah covers, challah boards, and homemade Havdalah candles, while smells of spices wafted through the hallways as an army of students stuffed 400 besamim bags and assembled “swag bags” containing everything families would need to create a beautiful Shabbaton at home, including a special prayer booklet, candles, grape juice, blankets, table topics conversation cards, and plenty of snacks.

Weekday evening sessions allowed us to fold parents and guardians into the experience, with participants Zooming in for challah making, a text study on Shabbat halachah, a Zemirot workshop, and tips on running a Shabbat dinner. On Friday afternoon, students chose from electives led by faculty on topics ranging from “Jews and Food” to “Finding Shabbat in College” to “Hasidic Stories for the Soul,” and many more. 

When a whole grade is arm-in-arm, it’s hard not to be pulled into the contagious current of dancing during Friday night davening. While we couldn’t link arms this year, we linked Zooms, embracing virtually and transcending the distance between our homes as families gathered for a special Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat and a Zoom Havdalah service. We welcomed Shabbat with words of Torah from a graduating senior, and after Havdalah screened a fun, schoolwide montage. Younger students concluded with a talent show, and grades 8 through 12 enjoyed a digitally deceptive magic show. 

By the time screens were closed on our Shabbaton at Home, it was clear that this weeklong experience was received with the same love that was put into making it happen. “Our Shabbat was elevated by being together virtually with our Leffell friends,” said Ivy Schreiber, a parent. “I am in actual tears. I am just blown away by the thoughtfulness and care that went into planning this,” shared Deborah Shapira-Stern, parent of a Middle School student. And from the Amidror family: “The school never ceases to amaze me! The out-of-the-box thinking, the creativity, the attention to details, overcoming challenges and finding ways to celebrate and be grateful. And most of all is the caring and the warmth . . . that is so needed during these tough times of social isolation and overall existential concern.”

Our role as experiential educators is to help bring what happens in the classroom to life through relevant, tangible programming, all while transmitting the school’s core values to our students. The challenges of reinventing a tradition for these unusual circumstances led to something new and wonderful in and of itself. Take a risk and try it this year! We know this will not be the last time we do something for the first time. 

Josh Ull is the High School Director of Student Life and Rena Sichel Rosen is the Middle School Director of Experiential Education and Eighth-Grade Dean at The Leffell School in Westchester County, NY.