Some of the toddlers seated on the floor of 92nd Street Y’s art gallery on a recent Friday morning barely speak in sentences but they can chant the Shema with feeling. Using sign language, they gesture wildly in all directions with their arms when they get to the name of God to show that God is all around them.
At the word “one” they all raise pinkies, and then, as directed, connect their pinkie, their “one,” to someone else’s. They then say it again, in silence, using only the hand gestures.
These 2- and 3-year olds, along with their mothers, grandmothers and caregivers, are guided through song and prayers by Karina Zilberman, a tall blond woman strumming a guitar, sometimes using puppets too to express a very open and cheerful Judaism. Zilberman, director of Jewish family life and culture for the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at 92nd Street Y, leads Shababa, now in its fifth year, a growing community of young, mostly unaffiliated families at the Y based in a cluster of interconnected activities.
“Karina brings everything to this; from the beginning, she envisioned this multi-generational community,” said Marty Maskowitz, director of Jewish life at the 92nd Street Y.
“Shababa has really spearheaded a major paradigm shift in Jewish life programming at the Y over the last five years,” Maskowitz continued. “Its success has shown us that we had to shift from being programmatic centric to community centric. We no longer gauge success by numbers but by the ability to create community.”
That Zilberman can keep her diverse audience attentive and engaged is a testament to her skills as a leader, but moreover, she teaches profound concepts in the most elemental ways, and makes it all fun.
“I believe that Jewish life can be a playground,” Zilberman said, with a slight Latin American lilt in her voice. “Only when you can play it, you can create a Judaism that’s yours — you are a part of that game, that script.”
In addition to Shababa Fridays, Zilberman leads intergenerational gatherings on Shabbat morning that are attended by more than 150 people; Shababa Mamas, a group made up of more than 15 mothers who sing together; and also High Holy Day services, other holiday events, pajama Havdalah sessions and an upcoming Passover seder.
At the Shababa Bakery, kids can bake challah and other goodies on Fridays; older kids can take part in Shababa Bang and Shababa Club, and parents can gather for “parenting with soul” conversations. For some families, Shababa is their only connection to Jewish life.
Shababa has no membership, no dues (some activities require a modest fee) and since its modest beginning less than five years ago there are now more than 500 families involved. Reaching out across generations, it’s more a community than a program; it’s almost (but decidedly not) a synagogue. It serves as a center for those involved, evolving to their families’ needs.
“Shababa is based in building relationships with people, with Judaism,” Zilberman said, adding, “I empower people to be curious.”
Zillberman’s background is as an educator, cantorial soloist and entertainer. Growing up in Buenos Aires, she worked for many years as a madricha, or camp counselor, and feels that experience is at the core of her being. She’s someone for whom hugging and kissing comes naturally. When the kids are leaving a Friday morning session, she embraces each one, remembering everyone’s name.
“Please say goodbye to me. We’re not in the subway,” she said, making a point to acknowledge the nannies who return week after week.
One mother comments that the mothers and kids play Shababa music at home and look up to Zilberman — who has recorded two Shababa CDs, with several original songs — as though she were the singer Madonna. In Argentina, she founded a Hebrew vocal group and recorded two CDs, “Karina Zilberman” and “Sera Una Noche” (There will be that night).
Last month, a benefit concert for Shababa, featuring Zilberman, the Shababa Mamas and the Miracle Makers, a children’s group led by Rebecca Singer, the Y’s Jewish family life program coordinator, and Mordechai Walker, brought more than 500 people to the Kaufman Concert Hall.
Shababa was born in the lobby of the 92nd Street Y. In October 2007, Zilberman, then newly hired at the Y, felt that the way to build Jewish community was to make herself available. With guitar and puppets in hand, she took over a corner of the Y lobby on Friday mornings, sitting on a mat, singing and welcoming people.
“Before, the entry points for Jewish life were a catalog. I didn’t want that — I wanted Jewish life to be alive, in a place where people could see, with no commitment, no pressure, just to be there,” she said.
Soon she had a few children joining her on the mat, and then they returned the following week and more kids joined. She then moved to another corner, when the group grew, and then into a room of their own, and then an even bigger room.
Now, on Friday mornings, Zilberman leads two sessions of pre-Shabbat singing, learning and playing, with about 75 people attending each session. On a recent Friday morning, Zilberman and one of the nannies who enjoys singing out, Suzanne Boothman, did a brief duet. Boothman says that the music is in her head all week.
The kids jump around and clamor to get close to Zilberman when she pulls out her signature puppet Coco, a sloth that moves very slowly and loves Shabbat. She surprises the kids with some sloth babies, and also introduces a new puppet, Bubbie Bracha, a very cool grandmother with big glasses who gives a lot of blessings and kisses. “Blessings,” Zilberman said, “are like stop signs. They make us stop and not take for granted what’s in front of us.”
About Shabbat mornings, she said, “I do traditional things in a nontraditional way.” Her style is energetic, inclusive and playful, ever open to spontaneity. Along with singing, the families do some sort of project — sometimes using crayons and, for those who don’t want their kids coloring on Shabbat, stickers — related to the Torah reading, or a value, or Jewish teaching.
“I believe in prayer,” she said. “I believe that kids understand it better than grownups.” She has them do silent meditations and then whisper good things to each other and later share out loud the names of anyone who is ill. Their prayer for healing includes the traditional words pleading for good health, “el na refah nah lah,” and lively lyrics composed by her colleague Dave Matkowsky, “Bye, Bye Yuckies!” inspired by a young child with cancer.
Sean Hecker, an attorney with Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, attends weekly with his wife and two young daughters. He and his Mexican-American wife, who is not Jewish, had agreed to raise their daughters as Jews and “Shababa has been far and away the most important part of their process.” Zilberman officiated at their younger daughter’s baby naming, and organized a mikveh ceremony for both girls.
“From the beginning,” he said, “Shababa has been completely welcoming to families with different backgrounds. Also from the beginning, my wife connected completely with Karina.” They have now incorporated some of the Shababa rituals into their home rituals for Shabbat.
One of the founders of the Shababa Mamas, Serena Kappes, an editorial director at iVillage, explains that it’s really wonderful for the mothers to do something on their own, for themselves — which people like her who work full time don’t get to do very often — without feeling guilty, since it relates to Shababa. She explains that the singing has taken on a dimension of its own, and real bonds have formed among the mamas.
While Kappes has long felt connected to Judaism, she hadn’t been involved as an adult until she found Shababa when her daughter was a year old.
“Saturdays we’re here. We work everything around Shababa,” Kappes said.
Maskowitz, the Y’s director of Jewish life, staffs the Shababa Bakery Friday mornings, enjoying the opportunity to roll up his sleeves and work directly with families. Maskowitz explains that the Y’s staff works hard to make sure that it is being inclusive and pluralistic, making sure, for example, that its kashrut standards at Shababa events will suit the Orthodox families who attend.
Twice a month, he shows up Shabbat mornings. “It really is magic; I probably have more of a Shabbat uplift when I’m here, working and being part of Shababa, than when I go to shul,” Maskowitz said. He enjoys “seeing the pure love these kids have for the Shabbat experience. It leaves me on such a high.”