The Kitchens scavenger hunt offers DIY taste of Shavuot

Imagine you’re told you are Ruth from the Torah and you meet someone claiming to be Naomi, your mother-in-law. Naomi says to you, “You’ve decided to become part of this people and part of this project. Now I want to give you some teachings that will help you in this new land of Judah.”

One of the teams in the Shavuot Mission Scavenger Hunt

That is how the evening began on June 3 when about 100 people embarked on The Kitchen’s second Shavuot Mission Scavenger Hunt. The five-hour event began at the American Grilled Cheese Kitchen in San Francisco’s Mission District.

“We are trying to figure out a way to get the power of Shavuot to more people,” said Noa Kushner, founding rabbi of The Kitchen, which is part indie Shabbat community, part San Francisco experiment, and part “tool kit for DIY Jewish practice,” according to the website.

“We have some people in our community who are involved in creative team-building and games,” said Kushner, “and we all wanted to find a new way to make the theme of receiving and learning the Torah a more interactive process.”

The scavenger hunt took place throughout the Mission District, and it was even more elaborate this year than last. First, people ate a dinner of grilled cheese and macaroni to honor the tradition of having dairy on Shavuot. Then the eight teams, each with four to 12 people, were introduced to “Naomi” and received electronic devices that relayed messages from her throughout the evening. The messages told them they would meet characters at specific locations who could help them in their search.

In addition to Naomi, the participants encountered three characters from the Book of Ruth: Boaz; Orpah, Ruth’s sister; and an elder of Judah. The actors invited the participants to study Torah with them for a short period, and rabbis or Jewish educators offered teachings, as well.

 “It’s always great to run into the live people,” said Jennifer Moses, who participated in the hunt with her 10-year-old daughter. “Hearing the voices and hearing the actors speak as if they were in character brings the story to life. It introduced my daughter to the characters and the story in a very vivid way.”

One team completes the task of finding a “holy place” and honoring it in “whatever way you see fit.”

At the end of each session, participants were given a password to plug into their device and receive the next clue.

In addition to visiting eight stations, participants completed roughly 30 missions that were designed to bring to light the Torah’s presence on the streets. Among the tasks: Find a mural and match it to a verse in the Torah, find a spice in the market that was used in biblical times, and find a recent immigrant (just as Ruth had left her homeland).

The Kitchen has been trying to find ways to make the Torah more accessible to people since it began in 2011, Kushner said. “We call [ourselves] a religious startup,” she said. “We actually just partnered with IDEO, which is a global design and innovation firm, and we are looking to find ways to connect with people who want more meaning, Torah and justice in their lives … We have a very active approach. We feel like it’s a part of our mission to experiment and have an impact.”

The idea for the scavenger hunt emerged last year out of a desire to raise awareness about Shavuot. “In my mind, Shavuot is as powerful a story as Passover, and I want it to be as widely integrated and beloved as Passover,” Kushner said.

For this year’s event, Kitchen member-volunteers Gabe Smedresman and his wife, Catherine Herdlick, connected the organization to the Go Game, which produced the electronic devices used during the event. These devices presented various problems to solve, some site-specific, some relying on clues, and all of which needed to be done as quickly as possible. The winning team completed the most tasks.

“They won the joy of Torah!” Kushner said. “And they were super-psyched, too.”