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Kabbalat Panim: A BJ Host Welcomes You

By Jon Wood | Issue Date: January 2012

“Welcome to BJ!” So began the first BJ shpiel to a visiting group from Belmont, Mass., by one of our new Kabbalat Panim hosts on April 8, 2011.

The wonder of BJ’s Kabbalat Shabbat services each Friday evening is well-known to BJ members. Its reputation has spread far and wide. BJ thus finds itself attracting an average of two to three visiting groups each week, including confirmation classes, synagogue groups, representatives of Jewish and non-Jewish organizations worldwide, and others.

Creating a New Program
After observing the bewilderment and amorphous excitement radiating from these newcomers, our proactive Education and Communications Team (of the Membership Department) decided we needed to do a better job of welcoming guests into our holy space.

“I used to watch our visitors sitting up in the balcony. The high-school-aged students often seemed confused and distracted. It was obvious that they had an interest in participating because when there was an opportunity to dance, they jumped up and danced! I felt that if they could be prepared for what they were seeing, there would be more interest on their part,” says Joe Antenson, co-chair of the team. “It would be a much more meaningful experience.”

Joe led a brainstorming session, which ultimately gave rise to the idea of Kabbalat Panim: A BJ Host Welcomes You. Kabbalat Panim literally means “to greet faces,” and that is exactly what these hosts aim to achieve. Penny Dannenberg, BJ member and volunteer on the Membership Steering Committee and docent of the Whitney Museum, quickly jumped at the opportunity to share her professional expertise. She became the leader of the Kabbalat Panim Hosts and made it her first order of business to write a comprehensive guide for volunteers to use when they welcome visiting groups. The Kabbalat Panim guide focuses on the experience one feels on Friday night, but it also touches on the history and architecture of BJ.

The Host Protocol
Eight BJ members volunteered to be hosts and were trained using the guide. The Kabbalat Panim Hosts both welcome our guests and put them at ease. For around half an hour before the beginning of Kabbalat Shabbat services, the host explains both traditional Jewish customs, such as standing when the Ark is open and facing Jerusalem during the Amidah, as well as unique BJ traditions, such as the eclectic music influenced by Jewish melodies from around the world and dancing during Lekha Dodi.

The Guests’ Feedback
The response from these groups has been tremendous.

“Dancing, dancing in a circle. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting from Friday night services. My notion of Judaism was limited to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Passover Seders, Hanukkah candles, and High Holiday services,” said Joshua, a confirmation-class student from Massachusetts. “I simply wasn’t aware of Judaism’s capability to create a vibrant and fun atmosphere.“

A recent guest from an Omaha, Neb., congregation, who was mesmerized by the spirited melodies and engrossed in the beauty of the sanctuary, told her host, Andrea Newman, “I didn’t know services could be so moving.”

Our hosts report that all their groups have been enthusiastic about the services and grateful for the orientation.

Online Visiting Group Registration
Visiting groups can easily register online, read a welcome letter with logistical information and the basic rules of decorum at BJ, and find a map to BJ. The registration data we obtain will become increasingly useful in the future. Among other things this data will help determine the impact of BJ on the larger Jewish community.

The Future
Kabbalat Panim enables us to truly welcome organized groups. Moving forward, Penny hopes to grow the number of hosts as the demand increases. The Kabbalat Panim project has also inspired some creative thinking about how to reach and welcome more personally the countless individuals who join us to celebrate Shabbat each week.