Shavuot with Chabad: It's a Kid Thing

Shavuot with Chabad: It's a Kid Thing

by Dvora Lakein - New York

May 27, 2009

( “Who wants to be a Torahnaire?” is playing Friday at Chabad of Port Washington. Throughout the live game show featuring Shavuot related questions (“what do we decorate the synagogue with on this holiday?”), parents will “socialize and laugh and kids will get an education,” says youth director Rabbi Ilan Weinberg.

Chabad centers around the globe are focusing their Shavuot celebrations on kids this week. The holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah almost wouldn’t have happened, if not for them. The giving of the Torah at Sinai, say the Midrashic sources, was contingent on the procurement of guarantors. Offers of the Israelites’ forefathers and the sages were rejected. Only when the Jews pledged their children did G-d acquiesce. 

“Children are our guarantors and we want them to be excited about the Torah,” explains Mrs. Sarah Alevsky. “It is their responsibility to pass it on to the next generation, and our responsibility to demonstrate the Torah’s importance; otherwise it will stop with us.”

 Since 2007, Alevsky and her husband Rabbi Chayim Baruch, have co-directed youth activities for Chabad in New York City’s Upper West Side. They organized a Chanukah skating party in Central Park for 1,000; host monthly kids’ clubs; and direct parent-child learning sessions. 

The lessons lead up to Shavuot eve, when Jews around the world gather for all-night study in preparation for receiving the Torah. Usually reserved for adults, Thursday night’s “Sleepless in the City,” unites kids from all segments of this Manhattan community. The children will learn about the Ten Commandments in specific age groups. Over treats, each group will present their findings through drama and song.

“We try to make our programs a full sensory experience,” Alevsky says. “Children enjoy exploring adult themes in child-oriented ways, and we cater to that.”

In Blue Ash, Ohio, 100 children are expected to scale “Mount Sinai” on Friday afternoon. The 25-foot outdoor rock wall, only slightly smaller than the mountain Moses climbed 3,322 years ago, is the highlight of this Shavuot celebration. “Thanks to the children we received the Torah,” Rabbi Berel Cohen says, “and now we’re giving them a chance to bring it down again.” As in all his programs, the youth director hopes to “teach kids the joy, beauty, and fun of Judaism.” And most importantly, for the teens at least, “give them something to be proud of.”

“For many kids, Judaism is like Mr. Potato Head,” says Weinberg in Port Washington. “They know there is a lulav and a Yom Kippur and matzah, but they don’t know where anything goes, how it all fits together. We have to make Judaism relevant to all aspects of children’s development. Relevant and fun.

Weinberg’s programs reach 500 local Jewish children annually. Multiply that by the Chabad houses globally, all of which are focusing on children’s programs that will bring them in numbers to hear the Torah reading of the Ten Commandments this holiday, and the numbers are impressive.

A recent study found that the most formative experience in terms of long-term Jewish identity is the preschool experience, Weinberg says. “Whereas adults are locked into circumstances, lifestyles, and choices, children are like saplings. That is probably why we are so concerned about giving children a positive experience on Shavuot and throughout the year.”  

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