With 800 member families, Temple Beth Ami, a Reform congregation in Rockville, it can be a challenge to form personal connections. Shabbat Across Beth Ami, held April 21, was an opportunity for small groups to recongregate over a meal at members’ homes. About 100 families participated, according to Rabbi Gary Pokras.
Members who wanted to be hosts registered to offer their home as a meeting place and provided the entrée for the meal. Temple Beth Ami provided each host with freshly baked challah, which was made in a bake-off the night before. The bake-off, known as the Big Challah Bake, drew more than 50 people. The synagogue also provided a bottle of wine, two Shabbat candles and sheets printed with Shabbat blessings. Guests who registered each brought a dish to share as part of the dinner.
Synagogue leaders played matchmaker, pairing hosts with guests. “We thought about who would get along with one another,” Pokras said, “We wanted people to get to know each other.”
The temple’s clergy recorded Shabbat greetings and blessings that congregants could view online during their meals.
Pokras said Shabbat Across Beth Ami is typical of the congregation’s new thinking since the pandemic began. For many, the pandemic brought a sense of isolation and loneliness, he said. But for Temple Beth Ami, it opened new doors.
“Our community grew stronger as a result of the pandemic,” Pokras said. “Our community is now even more dynamic than it was before the pandemic. We’ve focused on engagement as a concept and meaningful interactions, not just religious, but social and human.”
Interestingly, this was the congregation’s second time to convene Shabbat at members’ homes. The first was just before the pandemic started. That time, Elyse Weiner was a guest. This year, she opened her own home and hosted a Shabbat meal for12 people.
“It was fabulous. It was even better than I thought it would be,” Weiner said. “If someone walked in [off the street], they wouldn’t know we didn’t know each other before.”
Weiner prepared Moroccan chicken, couscous and a Moroccan orange and olive salad. Her guests brought homemade hummus, salad and an asparagus dish. Before meeting, they collaborated using SignUp Genius, a platform designed to simplify scheduling and event planning.
Weiner said she and her guests had such a good time that they want to do it again next year.
Each host’s home was visited by at least one member of Beth Ami’s three-member clergy team. Weiner’s group received a visit and chocolates from Beth Ami’s cantor, Larry Eschler, and his husband, Rob Mendelson.
“I really love the sense of community it creates,” Pokras said. “I really enjoyed seeing the different dynamics in the homes I visited. Everyone was having a great time, doing it in their own ways and I loved that. They were all making Shabbat beautiful.”
Two groups opted to meet at the synagogue — families with young children and people 65 and older and single. ■