Dr. Debby Rapps, director of Bergen County’s Jewish Youth Encounter Program, is always investigating enriching opportunities for her students and their mentors. This year, she helped the group participate in the worldwide Shabbat Project held on Shabbat Parshat Lech Lecha.
Introduced in 2013 by Rabbi Warren Goldstein, Chief Rabbi of South Africa, the Shabbat Project is a global grassroots movement that brings Jews from across the world together around the shared heritage of Shabbat. Jews around the world keep a full Shabbat in settings ranging from private homes to huge convention centers. The long-lasting effects of such a project have proven remarkable in bringing Jews closer to their heritage. According to Rabbi Goldstein, “The beauty of this is that from the Bronx to Buenos Aires, it is so manageable and practical. It’s something everyone can do.”
On the Thursday night prior to Shabbat, Rapps and her contingent joined over 1,000 women in the huge Challah Bake held in Passaic. Together they kneaded, braided and followed up with a great deal of dancing and singing. On Friday night, JYEP joined forces with Jewish Journeys, which is the local chapter of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Program. Together they sponsored a celebratory Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat at Bergenfield’s Congregation Beth Abraham. After davening, 10 JYEP mentees and their families proceeded to the homes of 10 JYEP mentors to join them in festive Friday night dinners.
Testimonials to the success of the evening came from the Warburg family, which hosted the family of daughter Aliza’s mentee, Brianna. According to Aliza, “I was so happy to have Brianna and her family over for Shabbat dinner. Brianna and I learn aleph bet every Sunday and now it was great to teach her all the brachot for lighting candles, washing and eating bread. I can’t wait to learn more with her.” Brianna concurred. “I loved celebrating Shabbat with Aliza’s family — playing with the kids and eating the delicious food, especially the challah!”
When Chani Shulman asked her mentee Julia what she thought about the Shabbat Project she responded, “I was a little nervous beforehand because I did not know what to expect. But once we came, my family and I enjoyed the Shabbat and felt more connected to God afterwards. I enjoyed the challah, the kugel and the zemirot that the family sang.“
For Shulman herself, “I was also a bit apprehensive before the meal. I did not know what to expect. But after the meal was done, I had a whole new perspective on the project. I did not feel different, religious-wise, than the family we were hosting. I felt we were all Jewish people celebrating Shabbat together. It was an amazing experience that I would love to do again.”
As a parent participant, Gabrielle Altman was very enthusiastic about the Shabbat meal. “It was a pleasure to have a Shabbat meal with the family of the student our daughter has watched grow into a more knowledgeable Jew. Every year when we host this wonderful girl and her family, we gain more from the experience than our guests. Their excitement about Judaism and desire to learn more inspires us.”
Dr. Rapps takes great pride in the accomplishments of the Jewish Youth Encounter Program (JYEP) over the past 30 years. Founded as an independent teen mentoring program, its mission is to provide basic Jewish education to children in grades 3 through 7 who are not currently attending day schools but whose parents want them to experience Orthodox Jewish instruction. Youngsters from 20 different towns within Bergen County are mentored by Big Brothers and Sisters from local Yeshiva high schools on Sunday mornings. From 9:15 to 12 they attend classes in Tanach, Jewish holidays and customs and receive individualized sessions with their assigned mentors. The classes are taught by certified Judaic studies instructors and the individualized sessions are led by teenage mentors who gear these sessions to the needs and interests of their students, which may include Hebrew reading improvement or preparation for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. The classes are held at TABC; concomitantly, classes are held for parents of the participating students. Currently there are more than 50 students and 50 mentors in the program.
According to Rapps, “More than 1000 students have come through our program. Many of them have gone on to the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies and then to colleges where they have joined Jewish clubs, Hillel and Chabad campus organizations and gone on to become leaders in the mainstream Orthodox community. Many have participated in Birthright trips to Israel. Our goal is to inspire them enough so that they will want to continue their Jewish education as individuals and as they build families. I recently met a “shadchan” at a local l’chaim celebration in Teaneck who reminded me that I was the one who read shma with her for the first time.”
The program, which sustains itself through a long-time private underwriter and student tuitions, employs a rabbi, currently Rabbi Yoni Mandelstam, who officiates at programs and serves as its rabbinic authority. Rabbi Mandelstam’s wife, Talia, nee Goldmintz, served as a YJEP Big Sister when in high school. Learn more at http://www.jyep.org or contact Dr. Debby Rapps at 201-833-JYEP (5937).
By Pearl Markovitz