The conference goers began to arrive in Hudson, Wisconsin Wednesday afternoon and continued late into the evening. Some drove for many hours, others flew in, and the rest were locals.
They arrived with anticipation, excitement, and hopes of learning and connecting with other Messianic Jews and Gentiles. This might sound like a normal First Fruits of Zion conference but it wasn’t. The participants were limited to the ages of twelve to twenty-one years old. They would spend almost four days together learning, praying, worshiping, and fellowshiping. It would be a weekend no one will soon forget.
The idea for the Hanukkah Shabbaton hatched last summer after the Shavu’ot conference. We had just launched the 12-21 initiative and for the first time had run youth and young adult tracks at our First Fruits of Zion conference. These tracks were such a success that we made the decision to debut a 12-21 event on its own; and what better time and place than winter break at Beth Immanuel? My wife, Shannon, Daniel Lancaster, and I got to work planning the event.
Thursday morning began with a liturgical Shacharit prayer service. Because it was Hanukkah, there was the addition of the Hallel and a Torah service. I was pleasantly surprised to see the 12-21ers take to the service like a duck to water. They were singing and praying right along and worshiping God with all their hearts. Every chance they got they were banging the pews with their hands creating a rousing rhythm section. For some of the 12-21ers this was their first taste of an authentic Shacharit service and many would later say that these services were one of the highlights of their weekend.
We then opened up with ice-breaker games so everyone could get to know one another. Then we began the teachings. Aaron Eby, Daniel Lancaster, and I taught on the theme of Hanukkah, miracles, and the kingdom of heaven. We limited the teaching time to around thirty minutes and then broke into smaller discussion groups that were divided up by age. A smile comes to my face even now thinking about the creative names that each group chose to name themselves. We had Lit Fam, Rogue Seven, The Seven Musketeers, Couch Potatoes, Goldfish, and Squad. But don’t let these humorous names fool you. When it came time to discuss the lectures and answer questions the 12-21ers were all business. I have never seen youth and young adults so engaged in the Bible and Messianic Judaism.
Later that afternoon we lit the chanukkiah together, ate dinner, and headed out for snow tubing. By the time we arrived at the facility it was cold and dark. Looking at the icy snow-covered hills from the car, I’m sure I was not the only one having second thoughts. Nevertheless, once everyone got their hats and gloves on and grabbed a tube, the fun started. The 12-21ers even convinced Shannon and me to join in the fun. The whole night was surely one of the high points of the Shabbaton.
On Friday we started out once again with a Shacharit service, this time with an added Mussaf prayer for Rosh Chodesh. We then had games and teaching, stopping at 2:30 PM to get ready for Shabbat. The 12-21ers joined Beth Immanuel for the transitional prayers to welcome in the Shabbat—Kabbalat Shabbat, and Ma’ariv—and then headed to the famous Green Room for Shabbat dinner. Once again, they embraced the blessings and prayers with gusto and, by the end of the night, we had them standing on their chairs and singing so loudly I’m almost sure all of Hudson heard them.
Saturday the 12-21ers participated in the Beth Immanuel Torah service and Oneg. In the afternoon after Minchah prayers we once again retreated to the Green Room for a 12-21er only third meal. After Havdalah it was time for the annual Beth Immanuel Hanukkah party. There was music, latkes, donuts, dreidels, and so much more. After the party we played a few more games and then decided we would teach the 12-21ers the traditional New Year’s song, Auld Lang Syne, and then head down to the riverfront to welcome the New Year from the banks of the St Croix River. It was cold, and we were practically the only ones out there, but as we counted down to midnight and then sang the song, my heart was filled with warmth. The next morning it was time for everyone to say goodbye and head back home.
Here’s one testimony from seventeen-year-old Benjamin B. who flew in for the retreat from Atlanta, Georgia:
I have only one word to describe my experience at the Shabbaton: fantastic. I really enjoyed the prayer services our group participated in at Beth Immanuel. The people were very nice and also it was a good opportunity for me to help serve food for Shabbat lunch. But my favorite moment was definitely the snow tubing. Now, I’m from Georgia, so I didn't pack any clothes specifically for snow. And even though I was freezing my pants off the whole night, it was one of the most awesome times in my life. So, in general, it was just an amazing time. I met new people, saw some friends, and just had a big boost in faith for God. I would recommend this awesome event for anyone.
It’s not easy being a disciple of Yeshua in the world today, let alone a Messianic Jewish or Gentile teen or young adult. It can be a lonely and difficult road. As Aaron Eby taught us at the Shabbaton, the most important thing is to surround yourself with like-minded friends who will help you stay on the narrow path and uplift your identity. That may have been the most powerful aspect of the whole event.
My prayer is that this retreat is just the beginning of many more 12-21 events and programs. I thank HaShem for this incredible opportunity to work with youth and young adults. They are the next generation of Messianic Judaism. Without them, this stops with us.