|Fair Lawn High School students are counted at the 747 morning minyan. Here, from left, Sophie Goldberg, Mitchell Finkel, Alyssa Seigel-Laddy, Blake Bichler, Jason Stolar, Ruben Danto, Jeremy Fine, Ben Novick, Joshua Pasternack, and Andrew Small get ready to go back to school. Eric Wasser|
What is speedy, runs on time, and is named 747?
If you’re in Fair Lawn, the answer may well be an innovative minyan for public high school students at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation Bnai Israel. One of a kind in the country, the 747 Morning Minyan has been helping local teens build and strengthen their connection to Judaism for the past seven years.
According to Cantor Eric Wasser of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, the idea hatched when he came on board at the synagogue. “When I arrived, it became clear to me that many teens are not inclined to come to a Shabbat morning service and that, post Hebrew school and bar and bat mitzvah, it’s hard to maintain their participation,” he said.
Keeping teens involved in Jewish life is a problem that is not unique to Fair Lawn – but the solution Wasser devised well might be. Wasser, who holds a doctorate in Jewish education from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, realized that students might be more inclined to attend a weekday morning service, especially if breakfast was involved, as long as they could get to school on time. Given that Fair Lawn High School is just a couple of blocks from the synagogue, the 747 Morning Minyan was born.
“We devised a program that meets every other Friday morning at 7 a.m., an hour earlier than the regularly scheduled shacharit [morning] minyan,” Wasser said. “It is an abbreviated service that runs until 7:24. Then we have breakfast and spend the next 15 minutes discussing an aspect of Jewish tradition and how the students’ Jewish identity offers a lens through which they can view the world around them. At 7:41 they leave for school and arrive there at 7:47 in time for their first class.”
Between 10 and 15 boys and girls attend the minyan on a regular basis. Some of them are knowledgeable about Judaism and others are not. “Some kids wear tallis and tefillin and some don’t,” Wasser said.
“Some know the tefillot [prayers] and some don’t. My goal isn’t to get everyone to put on tefillin even though it’s normative and important, but rather to get them to participate Jewishly and start to think Jewishly. Rabbi [Ronald] Roth and I want them to have a sense that the synagogue continues to be a place for them to develop their Jewish skill sets in an intellectual manner as they are becoming more mature.”
An important part of the program is the discussion, or curriculum, component. It is a piece that Wasser has spent much time developing. “The whole idea is to recognize that kids have multiple identities and that we want them to prioritize their Jewish identity and use it as a way to interpret the world,” he said.
This year’s curriculum is based on the insights of scholar and Israel Prize winner Menachem Brinker, a pioneer in the fields of philosophy and literature. “Brinker talks about peoplehood and the importance of forming a group,” Wasser said. “What we’re trying to do is give the kids a sense of being part of a Jewish group and encourage and develop their sense of belonging to the Jewish community.”
With Brinker’s approach as the framework, some of the discussions this year have focused on the origins and comparisons of Jewish and non-Jewish holidays and “seeing how practices in other traditions often find their etymology within Jewish tradition itself.” Holidays the group has considered so far are Halloween and Purim, the secular and Jewish new years, and Easter and Passover. Wasser says the intention is to get students to develop an appreciation for other religious traditions, but also to see how Jewish tradition is unique in interpreting what seem to be similar cultural symbols.
Other discussions during the year encourage the students to think about themselves as active members of their tradition – “active participants and shapers of what goes on in their homes Jewishly,” Wasser said, pointing to the group’s most recent topic, “Five Ways to Enhance Your Passover Seder.”
After seven years, Wasser still is awed by the program’s success, calling it “almost unexpected,” although he anticipates that it will continue to thrive and “help our students think Jewishly in a non-Jewish world.”
High school senior Chloe Laniado says she has achieved that goal through the program.
“The minyan reinforces my Jewish identity,” she said. “It keeps Jewish values fresh in my mind throughout my day.
“The opportunity to daven and discuss upcoming holidays instills a routine for next year, when I will be on my own at college. It is part of the reason I will continue to be invested in my Jewish culture.”
Freshman Alyssa Seigel-Laddy says that the program’s draw for her is its emphasis on community, calling the minyan “brilliant” and “an excellent opportunity to join in with my Jewish community and express my Jewish identity to others. I plan to participate in it throughout my high school career.”
For Jeremy Fine, also a freshman, it is the inspiration he derives from the minyan that matters most. “It’s an amazing experience. It impacts my day, my week, and my life.”
Wasser says a number of his colleagues around the country have gotten in touch with him to explore how they might implement such a program in their communities, but two factors make it difficult to replicate the 747 Morning Minyan elsewhere.
“The first is the close proximity of Fair Lawn High School to our synagogue,” Wasser said. “The second is a great synergy that exists to make the program possible. It is created by the regular ‘minyanaires,’ who start their minyan an hour earlier than usual to accommodate our program and who join in the davening, the support of the synagogue’s lay leadership in funding the program, and the team effort by Rabbi Roth and myself in leading the discussions.”
Wasser says that today, just having a program like the 747 Morning Minyan on kids’ radar is an accomplishment.
“In the world of Jewish education, people are always trying to think of new approaches,” he said. “We’ve carved out a unique timeframe and way in which to interface with our post bar and bat mitzvah students. We’re very proud of our program.”