On the first Shabbat of every month, our congregation hosts “Café Shabbat,” with coffee, bagels and a choice of Shabbat-appropriate activities offered before Saturday morning services. Each month we offer Torah study and two or three other options. Among our regular activities are: a drumming circle; yoga; Israeli dancing; discussion groups around Jewish themes; Jewish food and cooking; and activities relevant to our organic garden project. All activities are led by congregants. In addition, we provide comfortable seating, newspapers and chess boards, and encourage congregants to relax and chat in our Oneg room. Childcare is offered for pre-school aged children; older children are invited to join in the regular activities.
We usually cover the costs of the food with sponsorships. There are sometimes additional expenses if activities use consumable supplies. The Café does require some volunteer labor. We have a coordinator who spends roughly one day a month planning and shopping for each Café; other volunteers help by setting up the food; and of course our volunteers lead each of the activities. Our rabbi generally leads the popular Torah study, but from time to time he's had a “guest” Torah study leader take his place.
The Café has become a popular activity. It has increased attendance at these monthly Saturday services, and creates a warm, friendly atmosphere as congregants move from these “Café” activities to the service. It helps expand congregants' ideas of how to mark Shabbat, with worship and study paired with engaging activities and companionship. We purposely keep it low-key, with congregant-led activities, no fees and no pre-registration requirements, to make it very easy for all-even those who are not regular Shabbat service attendees-to participate.
We had seen examples of similar programs at other synagogues, but many were structured around Friday night services, and many included more elaborate programs that would not have been financially or organizationally feasible for a congregation of our size (approx 180 families). With Café Shabbat, we've adapted the more ambitious programs of larger congregations to be workable and sustainable for a modest congregation with limited resources. We recommend this for small congregations seeking to build Saturday morning service participation.
To learn about other innovative ways to celebrate Shabbat, visit urj.org/shabbat.