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North Shore families play and pray together at first-ever Shabbat Unplugged

Journal Staff

Amy Mitman, Jess Gelb, and their children enjoy Shabbat dinner.

JUNE 21, 2018, NORTHWOOD, N.H. – Even though her Swampscott neighborhood is quiet and safe, Rachelle Dubow would never let her kids run around outside at night. As a result, they’re usually staring at some sort of screen.

“You get sucked up in their vortex of electronics,” she said. “In so many of their interactions, they’re communicating with three of their friends at the same time on iPads.”

The night of Saturday, June 2, was different. Long after the sun went down, Dubow’s kids interacted with their friends face to face, and ran around together, completely carefree. The only bright light came from the moon shining over a lake.

“I felt this incredible sense of peace and security,” she said. “It was wholesome.”

For Dubow, that feeling was the major highlight of a weekend full of special moments.

From June 1 to 3, 30 families gathered for Shabbat Unplugged at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, N.H. For one weekend, 115 people from across the North Shore took part in a restorative weekend of spirituality, great food, and great company.

The idea for a Shabbaton weekend came to Dubow and her friend, Laura Shulman Brochstein of Salem, in early 2017 during a Torah study group. Both remember attending Shabbaton weekends while growing up, but it occurred to them that there hadn’t been any such event for at least a decade. Dubow and Shulman Brochstein decided to change that, because they felt an organized weekend away would help strengthen community ties.

“It’s great to live in an area with so many different Jewish organizations, but it can feel fractured, like you’re being pulled in many directions,” said Dubow. “It was a real opportunity to bring everyone together.”

Dubow and Shulman Brochstein knew that this would be a formidable undertaking, and they got to work immediately. They convened a committee of representatives from synagogues, schools, and Jewish organizations to design inclusive Jewish programming, and enlisted the organizational prowess of Jen Goldberg, the admissions director at the Epstein Hillel School.

“God bless her and her Google Docs and her Type A organization,” said Dubow of Goldberg. “She was phenomenal.”

Shulman Brochstein, who works for Jewish Family & Children’s Service, thought the project had a good chance of receiving a Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ North Shore Community Grant. “This was the kind of thing I knew they looked for,” she said. “Something new and experimental.”

Just as she predicted, the grant came through, making the program accessible to more people. The funds allowed the first 20 people who registered to bring one child for free. Some families received the money and turned it down, and asked that it be given to families who needed it more than they did.

The committee decided to hold the weekend at Camp Yavneh, a Jewish overnight camp on a lake in New Hampshire. Yavneh made sense because of its close proximity to the North Shore, scenic setting, high-quality facilities, and its ability to provide kosher food that accommodated a variety of diets and allergies.

On June 1, after over a year of planning, Shabbat Unplugged finally began. Friday night kicked off with a Kabbalat Shabbat service that was followed by a large meal. Afterward, parents and children chose from a variety of age-appropriate activities such as charades, singing, or a wine and chocolate dessert. Amy Gold, the principal of Epstein Hillel, organized a series of “Family Feud” style challenges.

Rabbi Shmaya Friedman of Chabad of the North Shore led the Saturday morning Shabbat service. After that, there were Torah learning courses, yoga classes along the shore, guided hikes, arts and crafts, tetherball, tennis, and scavenger hunts. To everyone’s surprise and delight, the waterfront was open, and people were able to swim, canoe, and go on paddleboards and paddleboats. Kids and parents were able to do as much or as little as they wanted.

There was ample down time for adults to sit around and forge deeper connections, which was the original intent of the weekend.

“I met some new people, and learned so much about them in just 48 hours,” said Shulman Brochstein. “There were many people I knew, but it had only been surface level. We got to go deeper.”

While the parents chatted, the kids played. “They ran around and got dirty,” said Shulman Brochstein. “The way it should be.”

On Saturday night, Rabbi David Meyer of Temple Emanu-El of Marblehead came up to lead the bonfire Havdalah service. He played the guitar while everyone sang and made s’mores.

“It was wonderful to be with families together in a setting that was truly community-wide on a beautiful, starry night, singing to bid farewell to the Sabbath, and sharing in roasted marshmallows and s’mores,” said Meyer. “What’s not to like?”

The next day, everyone packed up and went home. Three factors made the parting a little less sad. The first was the giant bouncy pillow in the middle of the field that drove the kids into fits of glee. The second was the knowledge that kids and parents alike would return home with stronger friendships. The third was that plans are already underway for next year.

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