Inside the OU

“Friday Night Lights”: College Students Infuse Communities with Jewish Passion

One might think that Shabbat, the ultimate twenty-four-hour downtime, couldn’t possibly compete with most Jewish teens’ high-tech weekday fare of TV, movies, computers, cell phones, MP3s, DVDs and video games. Think again.

Recently, as part of “Friday Night Lights” (FNL), one of NCSY’s latest outreach projects, a group of college students from Yeshiva University (YU), Stern College for Women and New York University went to North Bellmore, Long Island, to share an infectious brand of Shabbat enthusiasm with a community that will never be the same. Now the North Bellmore team returns for Shabbat once a month, and FNL has since formed additional groups to help light the fire of Jewish passion in other Long Island communities.

The concept of Friday Night Lights was born during a spirited brainstorming session between Rabbi Steven Burg, international director of NCSY, and Rabbi Stephen Berger, then-director of NCSY’s Long Island Region (currently the director of NCSY’s Northwest Region), while exploring ways to reach more Jewish teens. “For every teen attending NCSY regional Shabbatons and events, there are hundreds more out there who aren’t,” says Rabbi Burg. “We knew that our greatest strength is our volunteer advisors. We have over nine hundred advisors … who make our programs happen. They do it purely because they care about Klal Yisrael.”

Rabbi Burg instructed a group of eight to ten of these advisors, most of whom are college students, to “adopt” a community and to spend at least one Shabbat a month there. This innovative “we’ll–come-to-you” approach gives NCSY entry into the whole community, and the opportunity to inspire Jews of all ages and backgrounds.

Rabbi Burg chose to launch the program in Long Island because of its sizeable population of unaffiliated Jews. To start, he enlisted the help of two project heads, who began networking right away, recruiting college students to form the initial group of Shabbat visitors. The heads met with Rabbi Berger and Rina Emerson, associate director of NCSY’s Long Island Region, to draw up a game plan for the program’s first Shabbat in North Bellmore.

For the trial weekend, Rabbi Dov Schreier, rabbi of the Young Israel of North Bellmore and a rabbinic coordinator in the OU’s Kashrut Department, arranged for a group of FNL students to visit North Bellmore on a Shabbat when the community’s Conservative shul, Temple Beth El, planned to hold one of its periodic Friday night onegs.1 The FNL advisors were slated to be its special guests.

“The beauty of FNL is that it adjusts to each community’s needs.”

Igniting Shabbat in Long Island
Congregants at Young Israel of North Bellmore were amazed at the FNL group’s engaging approach to davening. Adi Isaacs, a twenty-year-old YU student and captain of the North Bellmore team, led the tefillot with a distinct “Carlebachian style.” After services, the congregants walked over to Temple Beth El for a festive communal seudah.

“We had no idea what was going to happen,” said Isaacs. “We started saying hello to people. At first they seemed hesitant, but as they sang ‘Shalom Aleichem’ we walked around the room getting everyone to clap along, and they got into that.” In the middle of the meal, they encouraged congregants of all ages to dance with them. “I saw a grandmother with three young boys,” Isaacs said. “I went over with a friend and picked the boys up and danced with them. They loved it!” By the time dessert came around, the room swayed with the sound of joyous singing. The participants then rose and formed two separate circles of jubilant dancing.

Many of the teens from both shuls eagerly opted to join the FNL advisors at Rabbi Schreier’s home for Shabbat lunch, and stayed there throughout the afternoon. On Motzei Shabbat, the fun continued with bowling and pizza.

After the visit, Yitz Novak, a twenty-one-year-old YU student who serves as one of the heads of FNL, received a phone call from a congregant at Temple Beth El. The woman urged the FNL group to come again. She told him that the grandmother who had danced with her grandsons mentioned to her afterward that seeing her grandchildren dancing on Shabbat was one of the best moments of her life.

A Step in the Right Direction
Since that first friendly encounter, the FNL group returned to North Bellmore for many more rousing Shabbatot. Convinced of the enormous potential of the program, Rabbis Burg and Berger promptly chose to implement FNL in two more Long Island communities: Roslyn and Plainview.
In each community visited by FNL, the participants and their families quickly gravitate toward the group’s sincerity and positive energy. “They have no agenda,” says Michael Sigal, president of the Young Israel of North Bellmore. “They are pure, good neshamahs who are giving these kids not only the spark of Yiddishkeit but the understanding of the responsibility to share it.”

Twenty-one-year-old Michal Frager, a Stern graduate who is a member of the group visiting Roslyn, Long Island, attributes the program’s success to its laid-back approach. “A big Shabbaton is a much more formal setup,” she said. “We get the families involved by virtue of being in the shul and [by] sleeping in their homes,” she says. “The kids are very receptive to having something to do on Shabbat afternoon and to [having] a forum to hang out with friends in a good, fun environment.”

FNL also started incorporating educational activities into its Shabbat program, such as discussion groups. “Some of the kids [in the community] go to yeshivah day school but are not so motivated or involved. We want to bring them a greater appreciation of what it means to live a Jewish life,” says Sam Ross, a twenty-one-year-old YU student who is co-captain of the Plainview group. “A friend once told me, you could teach kids the same things that they hear in school, but when they are taught [something] in an informal setting, they accept it [more readily].”

The Power of Connecting
Apparently, Ross’s friend was right. Stories of FNL’s powerful effect on the lives of Long Island teens are steadily streaming into NCSY headquarters. One night, Rabbi Schreier received a call from Sam Alboher, a newly bar-mitzvahed boy from a non-observant family in the rabbi’s community. Sam asked the rabbi for a lift to shul each morning—he wanted to start attending services. Now the shul’s proud new minyan member makes sure to be ready at 5:50 a.m. for his ride. To show its support for his decision, the North Bellmore community raised money for Sam to go to a religious day camp and also currently helps pay his tuition at the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County High School in Uniondale.

In another success story, two teenage brothers who are students at North Bellmore’s public high school were so inspired by their FNL Shabbat experiences, they asked Rabbi Schreier to teach them how to layn. Now, the older brother wants to go to Israel after high school to learn more about Judaism. According to Rabbi Schreier, the boys’ older brothers, who are grown and live outside of the home, are unaffiliated Jewishly. Not surprisingly, their father is extremely pleased with his younger sons’ sudden interest in Judaism.

Then there’s the story of a junior high school girl who went on the NCSY Pesach Great Adventure trip with the North Bellmore group. Shortly after, Isaacs received a phone call from Rabbi Schreier informing him that the girl had asked her parents if they could purchase board games because she didn’t want to play on the computer or watch TV on Shabbat anymore. She has begun attending Friday night services regularly and her family comes to all the FNL Shabbat dinners.

The message FNL provides goes right to the neshamah of the participants. “Punky or tough kids come in with a shell, and the exterior evaporates when they hear another cool kid asking us to sing a certain zemer or participate in a Torah discussion,” says Talia Williams, a marketing major at Stern and captain of the Roslyn group. “They ask about religion and God, questions many of them don’t have an opportunity to ask otherwise.”

Rabbi Burg is thrilled with FNL’s success. “I think we’re going to see this spread across the country,” he says. “[It’s] an NCSY Shabbaton delivered at the communities’ doorsteps. Eight young men and women show up in shul and make Shabbat leibedik [lively].”

Parents are also delighted to have wholesome, spiritual and grounded Jewish role models for their children. “My wife says [the volunteers’] enthusiasm [for Judaism] is contagious,” says Joe Polansky, a North Bellmore resident who has hosted some of the FNL advisors.

Blazing Ahead
As FNL sets its sights on taking its traveling Shabbaton to the national level, Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, the new regional director of NCSY’s Long Island Region and current head of FNL, plans to expand the program to four more Long Island communities. “We have a tremendous resource in the New York area—frum college students who would gladly go out to these communities for Shabbat,” he says. “You could populate every Jewish area in Long Island, New Jersey and upstate New York with these groups and impassion entire communities.”

Rabbi Lightstone says he would like to bring the program to Suffolk County, an area devoid of Jewish programs for teens. “If there are no shuls, we’ll find a family willing to host a Shabbat program in their home for the Jewish teens,” he says. “The beauty of FNL is that it adjusts to each community’s needs.”

Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.

Note 1. The food comes properly sealed, certified by the local vaad, enabling Rabbi Schreier’s congregants to accept the shul’s invitation.

This article was featured in the Summer 2007 issue of Jewish Action.