NEW YORK, March 16 (JTA) — Who needs e-mail when you have Shabbat?
On March 31, thousands of Jewish college students across North America will share a connection on a level beyond the grasp of technology thanks to an initiative called Shabbat Across America/Canada.
Sponsored by the National Jewish Outreach Program, the program is designed to introduce unaffiliated and marginally affiliated Jews to Shabbat. The premise is the unified celebration of one Shabbat across the continent, and because the program targets those with little or no religious training, many will be celebrating the Sabbath for the first time.
“It’s important to show students it’s not all about being part of an individual Hillel, but that being Jewish connects you on a national sense and a worldwide sense,” said Avi Friedman, program professional at the Hillel of University of Illinois in Champaign. The Hillel chapter is one of 70 expected to participate in the program, according to its manager, Andrea Snyder.
Shabbat will be celebrated by thousands across the continent as people sit down to traditional Shabbat dinners and participate in Sabbath-oriented activities in schools and congregations.
The outreach group distributes guidebooks to all participating institutions to help familiarize people with Shabbat and make the day of rest an appealing holiday to observe.
This year, college-aged students are the intended target of a quarter- million-dollar advertisement campaign to combat what has been dubbed the “J2K Problem” (Jewish 2000 Problem), or assimilation and loss of Jewish identity among the young.
“Today’s young Jews are tomorrow’s leaders,” said Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, founder and director of NJOP. “They are the pivotal group that will determine the long-term viability of Judaism in North America.”
NJOP is also working in connection with Hillel International to attract students who took part in Birthright Israel this past January, a program that shuttled 6,000 unafilliated Jewish college students to Israel.
“The more pathways that we provide to these students, the better,” said Keith Krivitzky, director of Israel 2000, Birthright Israel’s extension at Hillel International. “It only builds on what happened in Israel.”
Thirty college Hillels are currently involved in preparations for Shabbat Across American/Canada, with more expected to sign on.
In addition to the materials supplied by NJOP, Hillel International also offers grants of up to $2,000 for schools that devise creative ways to promote the program. NJOP encourages colleges to bring the program down to a local level to attract more students.
The Jewish Student Union at the University of Toronto is using the event as an opportunity to educate students about pluralism.
“We’re conducting a unity seder that will incorporate different philosophies and ideas from different denominations,” said Lisa Isen, program director at the student union.
An array of multicultural food will be served at the seder, which will also feature Friday night services run by different denominations.
In Toronto the Reena Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping Jews with developmental disabilities, is also coordinating the dinner. “We’re trying to involve the entire Jewish community,” Isen said.
NJOP estimates more than 750 synagogues in every North American city with a significant Jewish community will participate in the program, in addition to the Hillels.
Shabbat Across America/Canada, now in its fourth year, is based on the Turn Friday Night into Shabbat program, which originated in the Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York in 1987 under the guidance of Rabbi Buchwald. NJOP was created during that same year by Buchwald and has since operated as an outreach program enabling individuals and organizations to become more familiar with Judaism.