Greenwood Village, DENVER—Covid-19 has not stopped Rabbi Menachem and Sarah Lehrfield, founding directors of Aish of the Rockies’ Jewish Outreach Initiative (JOI), from doing what they do best: bringing Jewish content into thousands of lives. Like countless other organizations, JOI (appropriately pronounced /joy/) had to desist from conducting in-person programming as soon as the pandemic reared its deadly presence in Denver, but JOI shifted focus and continues to adjust to the needs of the community. The Lehrfields, along with supporters, participants, and logistics and event coordinator Melanie Knaster, innovate, reevaluate, and reinvent on an ongoing basis.
First, the Lehrfields and Melanie noted that JOI’s audience on YouTube was growing exponentially, even though the videos were not new. “We decided we wanted to put out more content,” Rabbi Lehrfield explained, “and then it was a matter of finding out what people wanted.”
Rabbi Lehrfield began weekly, hour-long talks on the Mystical Hebrew Alphabet. With that program drawing a steady audience, JOI worked on creating programs for individuals who were experiencing “Zoom fatigue” – the increasingly widespread phenomenon of disenchantment with lengthy virtual interactions. One answer is bite-sized videos. The brainchild of Aish of the Rockies board member Kevin Jinkerson, an ask-the-rabbi series named “Dear (R)Abbi” – a takeoff on the ubiquitous “Dear Abby” advice column of yore – is a vehicle for answering queries such as “Why do we wear a yarmulke?” and “Why do Jewish holidays fall out on different dates every year?”
At the same time, Mrs. Lehrfield launched a book club, beginning with Dr. Edith Eva Eger’s The Choice: Embrace the Possible. Dozens of women are reading and chatting informally via WhatsApp and Facebook. After each of the book’s four parts, the entire club will convene for a group discussion.
Ironically, JOI’s most out-of-the-box response to the pandemic is an actual box. The “Shabbox” program consists of seven weekly boxes or crates that contain elements for celebrating Shabbat at home – while the usual group gatherings at the JOI Hub are not possible. Ironically, JOI’s most out-of-the-box response to the pandemic is an actual box. The “Shabbox” program consists of seven weekly boxes or crates that contain elements for celebrating Shabbat at home – while the usual group gatherings at the JOI Hub are not possible.
“We were trying to come up with ideas to engage people in a way that they were doing something together but not in person,” Rabbi Lehrfield recalled.
Each Thursday, registered participants pick up their package, which includes grape juice, tea lights, challah dough, and materials for a different Shabbat craft, as well as a colorful booklet that explores “the how and the why” of each element, in Rabbi Lehrfield’s words. The booklets, in turn, feature QR codes that lead to simple-to-follow “JIY (Jew-It-Yourself)” instructional videos. The first week’s project was decorating the Shabbox itself, followed by candlesticks, a kiddush cup, a washing cup, a challah plate and cover, and a Havdallah set.
Rabbi Yaakov Meyer, the founder and rabbi of Aish of the Rockies – of which JOI is part – applauded the initiative. “The Shabbox is an outstanding development,” he said. “It reflects JOI’s creativity in bringing Judaism into hundreds of homes, including many that may not have ever experienced the ‘JOI’ of Shabbos heretofore.”
Successfully piloted, the Shabbox likely will become a national phenomenon, to be distributed through various organizations all over the country in anticipation of The Shabbat Project in November 2020.
Contact Sari Steinberg