Three years ago, a group of local neighbors in the East Laurelton area of Teaneck began gathering on Friday nights on the back deck of Menachem and Malka Neuman’s home. They gathered before the official start of Kabbalat Shabbat to create an uplifting spiritual mindset for the oncoming Shabbat. The tefillot that followed were lively and meaningful.
Fast forward to when COVID hit full-force, and indoor shul attendance was abruptly shut down. The chabura began meeting for Shabbat morning davening between the back yard of Rabbi Yaakov and Orly Nadler and outside of the Benjamin Franklin Middle School. The group quickly expanded to families with young children who liked being integrated into the services.
What sets the experience apart is Rabbi Nadler addressing the group at pivotal points in the davening, offering insights from a wide range of Jewish texts and interpretations from works of Chassidus, Kabbalah and Torat Eretz Yisrael—often in a storytelling format. After davening, a beautiful kiddush could be counted on, offering the participants ample opportunity to mingle, get to know each other and bond the various generations, professions and religious backgrounds of the group.
Within the last six months, the “Shaar Kavanah” group, which hosts only Shabbat davening, expanded to include weekday gatherings attended by adults and youth alike. Sunday morning hikes along scenic routes culminated in davening in tallit and tefillin overlooking a sunrise vista. Chanukah was marked by a festive gathering at the Hackensack Brewery. Yom Ha’atzmaut was celebrated at a picnic along the Hudson River in Englewood. On Pesach Sheini, 45 hikers set out on a hike they dubbed “Soultrek,” a meditative sunset hike to a full moon in the Hudson Highlands led by Dr. Noam Shneck of Teaneck (and soon to be of Israel). On erev Shavuot the group held a minyan at the scenic Ringwood Castle Point, and on Shavuot night, an all-night outdoor learning program attracted a large attendance.This past Sunday, the group organized a second “Soultrek,” this time along the Delaware Water Gap.
Before davening on Shabbat, members can participate in various spiritual opportunities to enhance their tefillot. These include meditative sessions focused on enhancing the spiritual connection of the participants to davening through learning the kavanot of the words of the tefillah and relating them to visions in nature. These sessions are led by Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill, the Cooperman/Ross endowed chair for Jewish-Christian studies at Seton Hall University and professor of modern Jewish thought and contemporary jewish orthodoxy. In addition, Neuman and Aja Cohen, a professional yoga instructor, offer yoga sessions to the group prior to davening and on the outings.
Among the original founders of Shaar Kavanah is Rabbi Yaakov Nadler, together with wife Orly, who spearheads STEM education for the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE). Rabbi Nadler studied at Chabad Yeshivot in Crown Heights and received semicha from Rabbi Levin of Melbourne, Australia. He holds a master’s degree in social work from the Wurzweiler School of Social Work of Yeshiva University. Having served in Bergen County as a teacher at the SINAI program and RYNJ for the past 12 years, Rabbi Nadler has served as a fourth grade rebbe at Yeshivat Noam as well as the director of student engagement. At Noam he has earned a reputation as a creator of gamification techniques. Rabbi Nadler describes himself as “a storyteller,” which as his students all attest, provides an entertaining and enlightening approach to learning. The Nadlers are proud parents of four sons who attend Yeshivat Noam and Yeshivat Frisch.
Menachem and Malka Neuman have been active in the Shaar Kavanah group since its inception. They are neighbors of the Nadlers and have resided in Teaneck for the past seven years. Also proud parents of four boys, ages 3 to 15, they share many interests with the Nadlers including the promotion of the chabura. Menachem sees the potential of the group in providing a spiritually meaningful venue for a large spectrum of differing personalities across all ages.
He pointed out that the senior member of the group, who participates weekly, is Professor Buzzy Fishbane, 80, formerly a Judaic studies professor at Brandeis University and currently a professor at the University of Illinois. He is the author of 16 scholarly works dealing with Midrash, mysticism and Jewish theology. He and his wife, Mona, enjoy the intergenerationality of the group and its dynamism.
As the Shaar Kavanah chabura continually expands, it is clear that there is growing interest in partaking in a spiritually uplifting and meaningful experience connecting the words of tefillah with the world around us.
To learn more about the Shaar Kavanah group, contact Orly Nadler at [email protected].
By Pearl Markovitz