Doubling Down on Shabbat

At a time of rampant assimilation and declining synagogue attendance, how do you get more Jews to connect to their tradition? In recent years, the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism have tackled this challenge with renewed vigor.

Much of the innovation has centered on making Judaism more relevant and meaningful. This can take many forms, from a focus on social justice and repairing the world, to musical and uplifting prayer services, to connecting with nature, to online education and entertainment, to radical inclusion and hospitality.

The general consensus is that in a chaotic, secular and fast-changing world, Judaism must find ways to adapt and keep up. It must fish where the fish are. It must figure out what Jews want and give it to them with a fresh Jewish twist.

All of that makes perfect marketing sense, which, paradoxically, may also be its weakness—it smacks of insecurity. We’re not sure our traditional product will appeal to you, so look at how we’re willing to mold it in your image.

That’s fine as far as it goes, but the question remains: Can we aim higher in selling our tradition?

That thought was on my mind the other day as I visited the new sanctuary at Temple Beth Am, which is due to open on the Shabbat of Labor Day weekend.

The Conservative synagogue’s main sanctuary has been reimagined and redesigned with circular seating surrounding the bimah, dramatic natural light streaming from above and several design touches that enhance the Shabbat experience, such as a striking row of artistic windows representing each Torah portion. The net effect is one of intimacy, openness and holiness.

But as beautiful as the new space is, I wondered: Isn’t Beth Am doubling down on the outdated model of the synagogue? After all, Jewish innovation today is not about real estate, it’s about “soul estate”; it’s about the software, not the hardware.

When I reflected more deeply, though, it struck me that Beth Am, too, is doubling down on software.

It’s doubling down on Shabbat.

When people criticize the synagogue model, they forget that the synagogue is the central communal instrument for Judaism’s greatest gift to humanity: the Sabbath, the day of rest and gratitude, the day we reconnect with what is real and most meaningful in our lives.

A synagogue that accentuates the Shabbat experience is no longer in the marketing business. It’s in the Jewish business. It is saying, in effect: We are elevating this 3,300-year-old Jewish ritual called Shabbat that we believe is needed now more than ever. Come see for yourself.

Shabbat, of course, is a lot more than a prayer service. It is the Friday night meal with its many rituals; it is Torah study, conversation, meditation, reconnection with family and community, unplugging from our smartphones, and so on.

Shabbat delivers gifts that we need all week. If it helps us repair ourselves, it can help us repair the world. If it helps us feel gratitude, it can make us more grateful. If it helps us slow down, it can make us more thoughtful.

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Shabbat is reliable. It’s not an abstract ideal that floats in the air. It is concrete, wired in, guaranteed to show up every Friday at sundown to deliver its abundant blessings.

What other Jewish program has such a built-in mechanism to encourage weekly, ongoing connection with a tradition and community?

And yet, when Jewish innovators look for the big ideas that will secure the Jewish future, the Shabbat experience is often overlooked. Maybe we just take this Jewish tradition for granted. Maybe it doesn’t feel new and exciting enough.

Either way, it’s time we take a fresh look at this ancient ritual that hits the sweet spot between tradition and modernity. It’s time we invest more resources in an idea that has real potential to renew and strengthen the connection with the Jewish tradition.

The whole Jewish community would be wise to make a Shabbat revival a top priority. There are myriad creative ways that the Shabbat experience can be expanded to re-energize communities and strengthen Jewish identity. Groups that are already doing this ought to share their ideas with others to create a Shabbat sharing network.   

At its best, Shabbat can be like a weekly Rosh Hashanah, providing us a weekly opportunity to renew and improve ourselves (without an expensive ticket.) Any synagogue that can empower this weekly promise of renewal is a lot more likely to increase its attendance.

As for congregations seeking to create inspirational spaces, they may want to check out the new circular sanctuary at Temple Beth Am—and soak in the plentiful light.

Shabbat shalom.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Jewish News Syndicate