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A mother with small children and an empty nester dad dialogue about their search for Shabbat

Michelle Shapiro Abraham has worked in the field of Jewish Education for over 15 years. She currently serves as the Director of Education at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.

Jim Ball is a public relations and marketing professional living in Newton, MA. A member of the URJ Board of Trustees, he also serves on the Commission on Worship, Music and Religious Living and the URJís Social Action Commission. He attends Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, MA.

Michelle Shapiro Abraham
Opening Statement
Jim Ball
Opening Statement

There are moments when I am jealous of Orthodox Jews. I do not mean to belittle their practices. I know that they require great commitment. However, it often seems as if it may be easier to observe the commandments routinely, without needing to think much about it. And yet I do not believe that the Torah was dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Rather, I believe that the echo of God’s voice inspired its words. I do not believe the great Rabbis truly knew better than I what God requires of us, and I therefore cannot follow the mitzvot exactly as they interpreted them. How simple Shabbat would be if I believed that refraining from the thirty-nine acts required in the building of the Mishkan was what God asked of me. But I do not. (The work forbidden on Shabbat is based on the thirty-nine activities necessary to build the Mishkan, the desert sanctuary. Mishnah Shabbat 7:2.)

I struggle to reconcile my secular world with a deep yearning for the sacred and the serenity that complete rest promises. Observing Shabbat is not a commandment whose laws are clear and concise; it is a whispered invitation that I strain to hear. This is Shabbat for the Reform Jew—not simple; not prescribed; not obvious. Yet like Jews everywhere, I do hear the invitation and find myself pulled toward the sweetness that Shabbat offers.

Over the last two years our family has been experimenting with how to observe Shabbat on Saturday as well as on Friday night. Friday night rituals have been part of our practice for years, but Saturday has been a work-in-progress. Shabbat morning is the only morning my children are allowed to watch television. We stay in our pajamas as long as we like. In fact, my children have special “Shabbat pajamas” that they wear. We try to refrain from grocery shopping, but mall shopping or other fun outings are fine. We may read our email, but we don’t respond to those that are work related. My husband, a congregational rabbi, goes off to lead services, and even when we go with him we still get up an hour or two later than usual. As one preschool parent at our JCC said to me on hearing about our Shabbat, “That doesn’t sound like any Shabbat observance I know!”

Our Shabbat is emerging, and we are learning as we go. We are engaging in the Reform practice of informed choice. We are learning, exploring and reinterpreting Jewish ritual and law to find meaning for our family. We are listening to the invitation and reimagining the celebration. There are times when it all comes together. Then the chaos stops and I can hear the voice of God a bit more clearly. Before my eyes, our lazy Saturday transforms into Shabbat—holy, meaningful and everlasting.

The Shabbat that I describe here is a personal Shabbat. It happens in the quiet of our home with friends and family. However, so many of our discussions focus on how to bring Reform Jews to synagogue on Shabbat. Whether it is reclaiming Shabbat morning services from b’nei mitzvah craziness, or the cineplex model with its something for everyone, we have focused on bringing people in for Shabbat.

I would like to suggest that perhaps we should instead focus on bringing Shabbat to people. I do not want more programming in the temple on Shabbat afternoon. I want a chavurah (small group of Jews who enjoy “doing Jewish” together) to while away the day with. Let me join in song and prayer with my community as the sun sets on Friday evening, and let me stay in my pajamas until noon on Saturday morning.

I do not mean to suggest that we should not have Shabbat morning minyanim in our synagogues. I am suggesting that our emphasis needs to change from what we can provide in our building, to what we can help people build in their homes. Shabbat is not a programming problem we need to solve—it is a sanctuary in time we need to enter. During six days of the week our community should explore the myriad possibilities for Shabbat rest, and take the seventh day to live those teachings.

The invitation is whispered. I hear its promise of wholeness and holiness. Help me to not create more to fill the time. Teach me to cease from creation and treasure the empty space, filling it with the sanctity of Adonai.

Nearly twenty-five years ago when I converted to Judaism, one of the rabbis on my beit din asked me, “If you had to give up everything about being Jewish but could only keep one thing, what would it be?” An intriguing question, I thought, and after a moment answered, “Shabbat. Because if I had Shabbat, I would have everything else.” For me, the idea of Shabbat incorporated the essence and totality of Judaism in one neat package; it contained Torah, community, relationship to God, study and the other elements necessary for living a Jewish life. Nice idea, huh? The rabbis questioning me thought so.

Shabbat is one of the revolutionary ideas we gave the world. It seems so central to our sense of Jewishness that it’s hard to think of being Jewish without the idea of Shabbat. And yet for me, twenty-five years later, Shabbat, except for Friday nights, is mostly still an idea. My wife and I light candles and have dinner together every Friday night, unless one of us is out of town. We attend services mostly on Friday nights—especially when our congregation has its monthly communal dinner. We’d attended Saturday services more often when my daughter was growing—but now that she’s off on her own, the half-hour schlep to temple on Saturday morning becomes easier to avoid.

Yet observing Shabbat in its fullness is something that is appealing, but isn’t integrated into my life. It’s a struggle. And I trust I am not alone in this respect. When Rabbi Yoffie announced his Shabbat initiative at the Biennial, I felt a longing and even a pang of guilt. It was good to learn, as he told us in his speech, that he himself struggles with Shabbat observance. But that fact didn’t end the nagging in the back of my head—and it didn’t move me to make any behavioral changes. I knew the initiative was coming—in fact, I’d taken part in a special URJ Symposium on Shabbat in January 2007 that was a wonderful exchange of ideas, learning and discussion. As a member of the URJ’s Joint Commission on Worship, Music and Religious Living, it was an issue we’d studied intensely.

So it was that when I was asked to take part in this Eilu V’Eilu discussion, it was not without a little trepidation. What could I bring to the table? What perspective could I bring that would possibly add to the discussion?

Then a funny thing happened on the way to this first column, which I am writing in the first week of April. I had to be in New York City for an event, and stayed with some friends for several days. My friend David is much more traditional than I—a yeshiva student as a boy and observant today. His family eats kosher. He gets up Saturday morning and walks to shul. So while I didn’t make it to shul with him, I spent from Friday through Saturday night sharing Shabbat. We ate meals. We talked. We took a nap on Saturday after lunch. I played with the couple’s young daughter. It was restful and filled with friendship, fun and discussion. Time stopped. And I enjoyed it, making the Sunday event I had to take part in even more enjoyable.

This coming weekend, I’m attending a Shabbaton our temple is holding. Not a few folks off in a private retreat center—but a congregation-wide, full Shabbat of services, Torah study, and workshops and classes held on Friday night and Saturday, led by members. Classes on Torah trope, parenting, gardening, cooking, proper shofar-blowing technique, just plain schmoozing and more. It’s an attempt to experience Shabbat as a communal time for the congregation, devised and planned by its members. It was planned before Rabbi Yoffie’s initiative was announced, which says something about the way our congregation thinks and acts. (Saturday mornings are always well-attended—we pride ourselves in having licked the problem of b’nei mitzvah many years ago. Saturdays are truly a day when we welcome the young person into the community; they are not private affairs.)

So I’m writing this sandwiched in between two different, but meaningful Shabbat experiences. Perhaps it will spur me to take the steps that have been beckoning me for some time. Or maybe it will just intensify the struggle. Who knows? It will no doubt give me ideas to continue this discussion in the coming weeks, and maybe that will be a help—to me and to others.

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