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‘What Is Shabbos?’ A Houston teen answers

Read this story in the Jewish Herald-Voice

At the beginning of the 2015 school year, Seth Goodman, then 16, was sitting around with a group of friends from the Randy Reisbord chapter of the Jewish youth group AZA. The conversation turned to the topic of Shabbat and Goodman’s reminiscences of Friday nights spent with family and with the local Chabad house at his former Fort Lauderdale home.

One of the group asked the question, “What is Shabbos?”

“I was appalled,” recounted Goodman. “As a Jew, Shabbos is a huge thing. My friend told me that he had never celebrated Shabbos with his family.

“When I was growing up, my family celebrated Shabbos regularly. It’s a built-in time to look forward to each week. It’s so pleasant sitting around a big dinner table, even it’s just having a conversation. It’s nice to know Shabbos is there.”

The question disturbed Goodman, his older brother Barry, then 18, and friend Joseph Mabry, then 16. The question needed more than a verbal explanation. It needed the living experience.

It was Friday. The trio made a decision on the spot: Organize a Shabbat experience for AZA members.

“We asked Joseph’s mom if we could have a Shabbat dinner at their house and she said yes. We put a post on our BBYO Facebook group and 25 people showed up,” said Goodman.

Shabbat became a regular Reisbord AZA occurrence. At first, it was Barry and Seth who prepared and cooked the food for the Shabbat meal. The menu was hamburgers. “It’s definitely not a gourmet meal,” said Seth, “but you have to include vegetables. We cooked them but they don’t get touched unless it’s fried okra.

But, it’s really not about the food.

“It’s more about sitting together, discussing the parashah (usually led by Goodman or Mabry) and just really relaxing,” said Goodman.

“My friends really love it. I know one kid who went back to Sunday school because of the Shabbos experience. I feel like I’m really bringing Judaism back into their lives.”

Seth Goodman, now 17 and a senior at Bellaire High School, still prepares the monthly Shabbat meals with assistance from AZA members. He also organizes the services and spirited discussions of the weekly Torah portion in the homes of various BBYO members. Between 15 and 20 high school students regularly show up.

Larry Sklar is the adult adviser to the Reisbord AZA chapter.

“I’ve attended two or three Shabbats,” said Sklar. “It’s amazing these teens want to get together on a Friday night in an intimate setting and have a Shabbat dinner. There’s no adult help. The teens take care of buying the food, cooking, inviting everyone, preparing the service, leading discussion of the parashah and cleaning up.

“From my perspective, when I was their age, I wasn’t excited about going to services on a Friday night. To see these boys choosing to spend their Friday nights together, having a meal and a service, coming together as friends to celebrate Shabbat, is quite impressive.”

Upcoming Shabbat observances are posted on the youth group’s Facebook page. Interestingly, said Sklar, no dress code ever has been mentioned.

“The boys all choose to come in a jacket or dressy attire because they treat the evening as a special deal. Nobody comes to play video games.”

One youth group member is put in charge of the parashah for the week. His job is to deliver a lesson on the Torah portion and draw up a list of discussion questions.

“The discussion is always lively and intimate,” said Sklar. “People feel free to share their thoughts. The discussion is particularly geared to how the parashah relates to what’s going on in your life or the world today.

“This kind of activity never happened when my son and daughter were active in Jewish youth groups here in Houston. There’s something special about this group of kids. I’m not aware of any other BBYO chapters in Houston doing this. Other chapter advisers ask me: How do you make this happen? My response is: It’s all the boys organizing it on their own.”

Seth Goodman’s love of the Friday night Shabbat goes back to his experiences at Chabad in Fort Lauderdale, prior to moving to Houston. Goodman was impressed with the meals, the table talk, the words of Torah and the fellowship.

“I’d go to Chabad often,” said Goodman. “People would drop in all the time to have Shabbat dinner. I thought it was great how accepting Chabad was of all kinds of people. You met a lot of interesting characters. My parents would come also, but I’d be talking to people and listening to their stories. There were so many smart people. They would make intelligent commentaries on the parashah. I’ve tried to emulate my Florida experience.

“My brother was the cook at the beginning. He’d phone and text people to come. I usually handled the religious aspect and have done so up until recently. Now, we’re letting the younger people handle that, so it will continue after I leave for college next year.”

Goodman graduates from high school on May 29.

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