Steven Newman, a”h, is no longer with us. His parents made aliyah with his brother, who is now serving as an officer in Tzahal. But Steven Newman has been remembered every Shabbat for the past 13 years, as Steven’s mother, Susie Newman, joined forces with her friend Terri Eisenberg, in creating a shadowing program at Congregation Rinat Yisrael on West Englewood Avenue in Teaneck.
The Shabbat Shadow Program enables more than 10 children ranging in age from 2 1/2 to teens to participate in a Shabbat morning of meaning and socialization. From drop-off at 9 a.m. until the completion of davening, these youngsters, accompanied by their shadows, take part in Shabbat group activities including davening, games and even sports. Their shadows are high school students who have been trained by Divsha and Martin Tollinsky, directors of the youth program at Rinat. These students also learn by shadowing other shadows already in the program. In a one-on-one ratio, the shadows and their participants either join age-appropriate groups or meet in the hallways or other spaces in the shul. Their three-plus hours are spent so positively that participants can hardly wait for the next Shabbat to come when they will rise early and awaken their entire family to get ready.
For Charlie Eisenberg, chairman of the youth committee since 2001, the Shabbat Shadow Program “has beauty and majesty of purpose. If allows youngsters with special needs to daven alongside their peers, socialize and integrate into groups, form friendships and, most important, feel Shabbat as a member of a community. For the teenaged youth leaders, it offers an opportunity to understand and empathize with the feelings and needs of a different population.
“For the parents of the participants, it is a much-appreciated respite during which they have the peace of mind to celebrate Shabbat along with their community,” he said.
“Our teenaged shadows are amazing,” said Divsha Tollinsky. “Each child’s needs are explored by our shadows. If for some reason a participant is hesitant to join a group, we all sit together and work out a strategy. Many of our shadows are also volunteers for the Friendship Circle and go on to work at Camp HASC or Camp Simcha, building upon the sensitivity that they developed working as a shadow at Rinat.”
Zevi Fischer began attending Rinat this past September after hearing about the Shadow Program. For Fischer’s 7 ½-year-old son, David, Shabbat cannot come quickly enough. ”Whether on Shabbat or Yom Tov, and especially on Simchat Torah, David was a full participant in all the goings on with the assistance of his incredible shadows. The three or four young men who work with David are full of energy and make every effort to include him in every possible way. Also precious to us is that the few hours that David is in the program, my wife can spend real quality time with our two daughters, one of whom volunteers in the Friendship Circle through her school, RYNJ.”
The Rinat community has truly taken on the mission of this program: from Rabbi Yosef Adler’s active endorsement and support; through the physical accommodations that the shul included in its renovations, such as the larger elevator, smooth sidewalk and ramp from the parking lot; and to the board being fully “on board.” According to Eisenberg, since the program’s inception 13 years ago, it has attracted new families to Rinat, even from other parts of Teaneck. “It is a mystery to me why more shuls have not established such a program for its youth. I am sure it is not a money issue, rather a matter of the necessary commitment. At Rinat, we are truly blessed with a cadre of wonderful children as well as a dynamic duo running our youth program.”
The shadows also learn a great deal through the program. Michal Katz is a 10th grader at Frisch. She has been a group leader at Rinat since she was in 7th grade. She now participates in the shadow program about which she commented, “I think the way the shadow program is incorporated into the youth groups really shows what inclusion is all about. I look forward to seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces every week. It is an amazing experience that makes waking up early worth it. I am a shadow and knowing that I have an opportunity to impact someone’s day for hopefully the positive is the greatest feeling.”
An 11th grader at TABC, Yitzchak Tollinsky has been a leader and a shadow for five years. “I love seeing the kids outside of groups and watching their faces light up when I give them a ‘high five.’ I love how everyone is very accepting of all the children that are there every Shabbat. Every time I see that I’m not on the schedule, I get a bit upset because I have one less chance to have the same effect on my kids as my group leaders had on me.”
By Pearl Markovitz