Freshman Shabbaton: Building Our Community

January 6, 2017
On Friday evening, November 18, the aroma of roasted vegetables, hot soup, and soft pretzels drifted through the halls of Gann Academy. There were sounds of music and laughter and sometimes quiet moments of prayer and discussion. It was the Freshman Shabbaton, an occasion to step back from the bustle of academic life as a new student and share a time of relaxed fellowship and contemplation.
From the end of school that Friday until Saturday evening, freshmen celebrated Shabbat as a community along with their classmates, advisors, and teachers. Activities ranged from candle lighting and prayer to singing, festive meals, small group discussions, and a spirited game of Clue.  There was also plenty of free time for community-building and fun.  The Shabbaton concluded with a beautiful Havdalah service and more singing before students headed home for the weekend—relaxed, happy, and more connected than ever to their classmates and to the Gann community.

For Emma Sullaway, a graduate of Cambridge’s Shady Hill School, the highlight of the Shabbaton was Friday’s high-energy song session. “I went with a few friends to see what it was like, and we decided that, if it got boring, we’d just leave,” she said. At first, they were all a little shy about participating. “But an hour and a half later, we were all singing enthusiastically, happy we went,” she said.

Eamon Sinclair, who spent his middle school days at the Runkle School in Brookline, particularly enjoyed playing “gaga” (like dodge ball with a soft foam ball). “Before we went to bed, the boys met up in a locker pod for a game,” he said. “I had a blast!” Eamon has also enjoyed exploring his Jewish identity at Gann; as a student in public school, he didn’t have much connection to Judaism in his daily life. “Until the Freshman Shabbaton, it never really resonated that I am officially part of this community,” he said. “Being here definitely gives me a sense of my Jewish identity in a very nice way.”

Also participating in the Shabbaton were Ozrim, upper-class students who serve as mentors to the freshmen.  The Ozrim helped plan the event and led many of the activities. “Some Ozrim, the senior girls, set aside time for us to get to know each other better,” said Shira McGinity, a graduate of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Newton. “We shared stories about our friends and family and life outside of school. Now I feel like I can be myself while getting to know people I hope will be my friends for the rest of my life.”

The Freshman Shabbaton also gave Shira a chance to experience Gann’s diversity and pluralism at a deeper level. “I learned that teachers and students here have a wide variety of spiritual practices,” she said. “This was refreshing, coming from a middle school with less religious diversity. It makes school feel like a safe place no matter how you identify yourself spiritually—everyone is accepted.”

The Shabbaton activities are just one way in which freshmen get to know each other and experience a sense of belonging—as they leave their 22 middle schools behind and build a new community at Gann.  Other opportunities range from introductions to upper-class “Gannbassadors” to the freshman class Project Adventure ropes course to the All-School Retreat.  Most notable are Gann’s weekly advisory sessions—meetings of eight freshmen, an upper-class mentor, and a faculty advisor, where students discuss everything from how to use Gann’s technology to world politics.  Together, these activities build a very special sense of camaraderie among the class and within the school.

As they grow and thrive under the guidance of faculty members and older students, Gann freshmen are already moving towards someday becoming mentors for younger students. And so the circle continues, as the bonds freshmen form with each other, faculty advisors, and Ozrim enrich the lives of everyone in the Gann community.
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