COMING TO A LONG ISLAND COMMUNITY NEAR YOU: OU'S FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS SHINE BRIGHTLY ACROSS THE CONTINENT
It all began during a NCSY brainstorming session about a year-and-a-half ago when the youth program team pulled their heads together to come up with an innovative way to reach unaffiliated Jewish teenagers. The panacea devised at OU headquarters was Friday Night Lights, which to many conveys Texas high school football, from the popular book, movie and current TV show of the same name, but to Jewish teenagers from Long Island to Los Angeles, it is an unforgettable Sabbath experience.
FNL offers teens a fun and relaxing atmosphere filled with candle lighting, traditional prayer services, festive meals, singing, dancing, story telling, group discussions and recreation, thus engaging Jewish youth on many levels. In accordance with NCSY's mission -- which seeks to increase awareness of the Jewish religion among unaffiliated youth as well as to inspire those who are already observant -- FNL sends a team of eight to ten volunteer advisors to bring the spirit of Shabbat to communities that need it most (including right here on Long Island).
The advisors are young university students and recent graduates with an extensive knowledge of Judaism. "They're bright, enthusiastic, and are really looking to give," declared Rabbi Steven Burg, National Director of NCSY. "Most importantly," he continued, "the teens are able to connect to them."
Yeshiva University students, Yitz Novak and Ayelet Lipstein were instrumental in putting the program together. "The logic was simple, we know where the communities are, but they're not coming to us. So we chose to put together the program and go to them," said Yitz.
FNL Rabbis are important too. So much so, that in North Bellmore, Sam Alboher, following his FNL experience, made a connection with Rabbi Dov Schreier, rabbi of the local Young Israel, who is also a member of the staff of OU’s Kosher Division, to see if the rabbi would take him along daily for 6:00 a.m. morning services.
"Through the shul, we raised money for him to go to a religious day camp, and raised money for his tuition to go to the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County High School," Rabbi Schreier explained. "Now, instead of being in public school, he is in HANC, ninth grade," he said.
With a talented team bringing joy and inspiration to Jewish teenagers, Rabbi Burg's vision for FNL --"We would like to go across America! Every city should have a FNL program" -- is coming true. The program, in addition to Long Island, is already running in upstate New York; Kansas City, Kansas; and Valley Village in Los Angeles. The NCSY New Jersey, New Orleans and Canada Regions are currently planning their FNL activities.
"FNL is becoming a hot trend in informal education, growing literally by the day. NCSY’s challenge is to transition FNL into a sustainable model. This takes financial support," stated Rabbi Burg.
FNL has supporters across the country. For example, the family of Sam Makovsky, z”l, of Denver, has dedicated a year of Shabbatons in an FNL community on Long Island in his memory. The family members explained their excitement in sponsoring the event more than half a continent away: “We are excited to support a program that does not operate in a vacuum. Something all communities need is a program that cannot only reach our teens but can influence and support the community as a whole. It is a wonderful opportunity to contribute to a brand new, yet extremely successful initiative,” family members said.
Friday Night Lights on Long Island
According to the UJA-Federation of New York’s 2002 Jewish Community Study of New York, Nassau County is home to almost a quarter of a million Jews, more than reside in the entire city of Philadelphia. However, 44 percent of Nassau County Jewish households do not belong to a synagogue, and 73 percent of Jewish teens in Nassau receive no Jewish day school education. One out of five currently married couples in Nassau is intermarried, with the number increasing to one out of three for those who married since 1990.
And of particular interest to the FNL program, while 53 percent of the general U.S. Jewish population lights candles on Friday night to usher in the Sabbath, only 29 percent of Nassau County Jews do so.
With these statistics in mind, the program is flourishing more then ever on Long Island. It is effectively being implemented in its original communities of North Bellmore, Plainview and Roslyn, followed by Long Beach and Merrick. The Lynbrook and Oceanside communities are in their late planning stages, and the FNL team is seeking communities in Suffolk, which are looking for the program to come to them.
"FNL can't be satisfied with a status quo; we are continuing to develop original programming and searching out new communities," declared Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, Regional Director of the NCSY Long Island Region.
An FNL program is worth every minute. Friday night activities are uplifting; after prayer services everyone gets together for a delicious dinner, following which they whole-heartedly sings traditional Sabbath songs. During the Sabbath day, after lunch, the whole group gets together at a living room table to shmooze about life and Judaism. After the Sabbath, teens along with advisors engage in social activities, such as bowling.
The FNL Team Hits the Road
The Long Island region team of seven to eight youth advisors visits each community once a month. Two of the advisors serve as captains for each community, and along with the Long Island NCSY office and volunteers they arrange the Sabbath program. Currently about 25 teens come to each FNL session.
This was not always the case. "When we started our program in Roslyn," recalls YU's Yitz Novak, "no one showed up to our Friday night oneg. The only ones who were there were some traditional teens who came to the synagogue with their families. They saw that we had a program planned, stayed and had a good time with us. Next day, they invited their friends, and it took off from there," he said.
The North Bellmore community, with Rabbi Schreier -- who takes Sam Alboher to morning services -- playing a prominent role, also grew from approximately five to ten teens at its first ever FNL event, to a range of 20 to 30 teens for each successive program. In fact, FNL dinners in North Bellmore have expanded to draw as high as 200 people, and include community members young and old. FNL in North Bellmore holds the program in conjunction with the Beth El Conservative synagogue. While they have separate prayer services, the participants join together at dinner.
Rabbi Burg, the National Director of NCSY, declared, "Our joint efforts only increase what we are all trying to accomplish--love and passion for a Jewish way of life."
Rabbi Schreier said that FNL has taken his community to a new level spiritually. "The people eagerly anticipate the arrival of the group of advisors and they do not disappoint. Beginning with the Carlebach davening (featuring the melodies of the late, renowned rabbi noted for the spirituality of his music), continuing with the dancing, the dinner and the spirit of Shabbos and love of Judaism that these energetic, young men and women bring is contagious. Many people have told us how they have added some of these songs that the advisors sing when they come to their own Shabbos table."
The accomplishments of FNL reach far and wide. Rabbi Schreier said, "If uplifting the spirit of one person is considered as if they have uplifted an entire world, we can only imagine what has been accomplished through the many people who have been inspired to enhance their own spiritual attachment to Judaism through this creative and innovative program. My own children eagerly await the next time that the advisors will come for Shabbos," he said.
For more information on how you can be a supporter of FNL, or to bring FNL to your Long Island community, contact Rabbi Lightstone at 516-569-6279 or RabbiAryeh@lincsy.com.