The Friday Night Shabbat Dinner Experience
A great way to kindle Jewish continuity.
In their insightful article “The Pew Survey Reanalyzed: More Bad News, but a Glimmer of Hope,” Steven M Cohen and Jack Wertheimer point out how the future for non-Orthodox American Jewry is very much in peril, and in light of that fact I would like to make a suggestion.
The best way to jump start Jewish life in non-Orthodox Jewish communities would be for the non-Orthodox to reclaim Friday Night Shabbat Dinners.
Since according to current population projections the Orthodox Jews who are keeping Shabbat are doubling in number every generation, and the non-Orthodox Jews who are most-all not keeping Shabbat are seeing their numbers cut in half every generation, it behooves Jews from all backgrounds to observe at least Friday night Shabbat dinners in their communities.
As Ahad Haam, the founder of Culture Zionism, was known to say: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”
Obviously there is more than just Shabbat dinners that separate the Orthodox from the other movements in terms of the Orthodox’ s success demographically (e.g. higher birthrate), but promoting Shabbat dinners may prove to be the single most effective way for the non-Orthodox to begin to strengthen themselves.
The simplest and easiest way to put this goal into action is by asking those families in their synagogues who already have traditional Friday night dinners in their homes to please invite over other families in their communities who don’t typically celebrate Friday night dinners so they could savor the Shabbat experience. If done right, the Friday night Shabbat dinners sell themselves and over time you would have doubling and tripling the number of families in each community observing Friday night Shabbat dinners.
One strong point in our favor, in our bid to promote Shabbat dinners (for whoever is makes the pitch) is that there is an abundance of sociological evidence which shows that having dinner together as a family is in general very important to the physical and emotional health of our children of all ages, especially of adolescents as pointed out in many studies.
In our day and age it is even more important for at least one night a week, to have everyone in their family turn off their cell-phones for at least one full hour, sit down together as a family and enjoy great warm food, Challah, wine, have meaningful conversation, and if possible sing- all while basking in the light of the Friday night candles.
Shabbat observance should not be considered something that only a fringe group of Jews observe. Shabbat’s centrality to Judaism is obvious as being the only ritual mentioned in the Ten Commandments, being the Fourth Commandment. Jews who want to just “keep the basic tenets of Judaism” by keeping the Ten Commandments should include Shabbat in their repertoire of what they observe.
People who do follow up programming with Birthright alumni have found that bringing Birthright alumni together to celebrate Shabbat dinners is one of the most effective ways to get Birthright alumni to feel connected to Jewish life in their home community after returning from Israel. Google "Birthright NEXT Shabbat" or go to www.projectShabbat.com to see how this works.
Communities which celebrate Shabbat should invite groups of Birthright alumni to spend Shabbat with them for a joint family and group Shabbat experience. Imagine what a powerful experience that could be for Birthright alumni.
If anyone reading this is in any position to help promote Friday Shabbat dinners either in your own synagogue or to promote Friday dinners with Birthright alumni, please do so as the future of American Jewry depends on it. Don’t expect the Rabbi of your community to take on this project, as I have long advocated for this and have found they, for whatever reason, end up not taking this project on for their communities. If you are capable of organizing this and you truly care about the Jewish future here is your opportunity to make a huge difference, and it is not as hard as you might think. You can directly strengthen the future of American Jewry by turning on one or more Jewish families and young people to the beauty of the Friday night Shabbat dinner experience.
Dave Neil is a PR consultant and lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children and has a special interest in Jewish Continuity.