Houston Federation Embarks on Project to Bring Shabbat to the Unaffiliated

The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston is bringing a revolutionary guest to town this fall: the Sabbath Queen.

Taking a page from the outreach efforts of Lubavitch and other Orthodox groups, the federation is spearheading a community-wide effort in conjunction with the city’s 20 synagogues to invite the “marginally affiliated” to celebrate Shabbat.

“Our goal is to mobilize the entire community to participate in some kind of Shabbat observance, minimally once a month,” said Lee Wunsch, assistant executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston.

This plan may be the boldest example to date of the growing cooperation between synagogues and Jewish community federations, as issues of Jewish identity rise on the agenda of the American Jewish community.

It was conceived by Houston’s Community Think Tank on Jewish Continuity, a body composed of representatives of the city’s five largest synagogues and its five largest communal organizations, including the federation.

Like similar think tanks, task forces and commissions across the country, the Houston body was formed in the wake of the alarm generated by the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, with its report of a 52 percent intermarriage rate.

Beginning after the High Holidays in the fall, Houston’s Jewish community — which numbers about 45,000 — will target one Shabbat a month for widespread participation.

The federation will be at the center of the program as coordinator and catalyst, budgeting $90,000 for the 18-month project.

It will sponsor what Wunsch called “a major marketing effort to the community,” in hopes of bringing in the “marginally affiliated, as well as those who are affiliated but have little Shabbat observance in their homes.”

SYNAGOGUE WILL BE PROGRAM’S CORE

Federation agencies will play a key role in creating Sabbath programming for singles, the elderly and new immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

But it is the synagogue that will be at the care of the program. Synagogues throughout the city are being encouraged to match families unfamiliar with Shabbat observance with families who are familiar, and to make synagogue services that week accessible and welcoming to newcomers.

“One of the things we heard from rabbis is whatever we do with Jewish continuity needs to have a major synagogue component, major spiritual component,” said Wunsch. “We felt that Shabbat was a tradition in Jewish life that was the easiest opportunity to try to re-engage people in religious observance.”

It was also a way for the think tank to show that synagogues, the federation and its agencies can work together.

Traditionally, federations and synagogues in America have been separated by a wall akin to that separating church and state under the United States Constitution. Both sides were wary of the other, with synagogues seeing federations as both competitors for money and as a secular substitute for religious affiliation.

Now, however, that divide is coming down.

In the wake of the 1990 population study, federations realized that raising funds for Israel and mobilizing support for endangered Jews have failed to ensure the affiliation of the next generation of American Jews.

This realization has opened the way for the spiritual values of the synagogue to be welcomed by federation leadership.

At the Houston think tank deliberations, said Rabbi Shaul Osadchey of Congregation Brith Shalom, everyone agreed about “the centrality of synagogues in revitalizing Jewish life.

“That in itself was a monumental affirmation, because it was not something the federation movement, and the institutions of the community, had really acknowledged in a way that they needed to,” said Osadchey.

As in Houston, which considers this project only a demonstration, most communities’ continuity efforts are only in the beginning stages.

So far, many have focused on initiating new Jewish identity programs through special grants.

Among the communities that have launched new citywide efforts are Washington, which is bringing its youth groups together to promote travel to Israel; and Boston, where the federation is subsidizing family educators in synagogues and will soon start offering intensive, synagogue-based classes designed to promote Jewish literacy.

‘SHABBAT IS WHAT PEOPLE NEED TO DO’

The idea for the Houston project came, appropriately enough, at a Shabbat dinner.

“They were coming up with one idea after another, all episodic things, not really connected to foundational events or activities in Jewish life,” said Dr. Baruch Brody, a federation board member who was a consultant to the think tank.

“We were talking about it at the Friday night table, thinking this is all going to be a waste of time and money.

“Then my wife, Dina, said, ‘Shabbat is what people need to do.’ It relates to family life, to synagogue, to spirituality, all the things families are now talking about.’”

When he took the idea back to the think tank, the members liked it.

“There was a feeling in the community that Jewish continuity in America is now totally dependent upon religion, not ethnicity, so we once again promote the religious aspect of Jewishness,” think tank member Rabbi Joseph Radinsky of United Orthodox Synagogues.

“There was a sense we needed to encourage a return to those kinds of practices that connect people most directly and deeply to the soul of Judaism,” said Osadchey.

“Many of us are convinced there are a lot of people who would come back if they could overcome the intimidation of not knowing enough, so that’s why there’s an emphasis on teaching in workshops, on coming back at whatever level of teaching and observance there might be,” he said.

“We’re telling them to take another look, try again, come back, because we’re convinced one of the missing components of their lives, the spiritual dimension, can be found in the synagogue,” said Osadchey.

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