For the last several years Elijah, currently in eighth grade, looked forward all year to the Shabbaton weekend. “It’s very easy to make new friends and meet people from the Jewish community” Elijah said during a recent phone call, “The whole weekend is great, but Shabbat is especially fun because we all get to sit together in a room, and you can feel the energy all around.” Elijah said he is excited to go on Shabbaton next year—and even come back as a counselor for years after.
Shabbaton is an annual weekend retreat for third through ninth-graders from the Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys and beyond to experience shabbat with other Jewish youth. It’s run by the Jewish Federation and is an opportunity for Jewish youth from a variety of synagogues to come together for an incredible, camp-like Shabbat experience. This year, while Shabbaton will not be able to happen due to Covid-19, the memories of past weekends and the excitement for future weekends is fresh in the minds of past participants and staff members alike.
Aaren Heller grew up in the community—attending Shabbaton from the time she was in the fourth grade. In a phone call, Aaren described how she initially got involved. “Shabbaton was the coolest thing people got to do,” she said. “I was the only Jewish person in my class, so to be immersed in Judaism for a weekend was really special and life-changing.” Shabbaton was such an inspirational part of Aaren’s childhood that, after college, she started working in the Jewish camping world and took on the role as the Director of the Shabbaton program (now former).
As a director Aaren, like many others I spoke with, found Havdalah to be the most inspirational part of the weekend. “Lots of our kids come from all over the San Gabriel, Pomona Valley even the Inland Empire,” she said. “Many arrive without knowing many people, but by the end of the weekend, they feel like they know almost everyone. I love seeing the transformation from Friday afternoon until Havdalah. They all become so close in a way you just don’t see today where they create such a special bond in a short time.”
For Laurie Averitt, Shabbaton has become a yearly staple ever since first attending as a counselor nearly 20 years ago. Both of her kids have participated in Shabbaton every year giving them an incredible chance to interact with other children their age. For Los Angeles-raised Laurie, Shabbaton was a chance to make the spread out Jewish community of the San Gabriel Valley feel both unified and tight-knit.
In an email message Laurie wrote that “it is harder to be Jewish in the SGV, because more people are living in different areas and are spread out. Los Angeles has its own little ‘pockets’ of Jewish neighborhoods/communities. The SGV depends on the Jewish Federation to unite our Jewish residents because there are no ‘pockets’ of these Jewish neighborhoods/communities. Having the Jewish Federation sponsor the Shabbaton made it really easy to gather together the Jewish youth from all the local temples and synagogues in the SGV. My kids made some good friends at Shabbaton; and while they didn’t see each other much during the year, when March rolled around, they picked up right where they left off the year before. They are young adults and they still keep in touch with some of their Shabbaton cabin mates! The Jewish Federation strives to make sure that the kids really understand what it means to be Jewish in today’s society and to be proud of that.”
A recurring theme throughout everyone who spoke about Shabbaton, both campers, counselors and staff alike was the warmth and friendliness of the entire experience. While Shabbaton won’t be able to occur this year—we know that the entire community is excitedly waiting for its return.“Shabbaton is a magical experience that every Jewish youth must experience at least once during their Religious School years at their temples/synagogues in the SGV,” Laurie said.
Rabbi Daniel Levine is a Senior Jewish Educator with Hillel and a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.