Chicken Soup for the Jewish Masses: Shabbat Program Celebrates 10 Years

A nationwide Shabbat celebration marking its 10th anniversary has brought unaffiliated Jews back into the synagogue, say rabbis who run the outreach program. However, some movement leaders’ have expressed discomfort with the program’s Orthodox emphasis. “Shabbat Across America,” the brainchild of Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, was conceived in 1996 as one huge beginners’ service and Shabbat meal that would take place on the same night across the country.

Since its inception, Buchwald says, more than half a million Jews have taken part in it at more than 1,900 synagogues. More than 65,000 participants have signed up for this year’s event, scheduled for Friday at 650 synagogues, from Reconstructionist to Orthodox.

“We want to get people who never experienced Shabbat literally to come in off the streets,” Buchwald says. The evening includes a traditional beginners’ service, which people are encouraged to interrupt to ask questions, followed by a festive Shabbat meal, singing, and discussion.

It is the only such large-scale mass Jewish celebration of its kind, which participating rabbis say makes it particularly compelling.

“There’s something about the national scale, people enjoy being part of something larger, to say we’re doing this the same way in Texas, in Florida and Ohio as in New York,” says Rabbi Elie Weinstock of Manhattan’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, an Orthodox shul that has been running Shabbat Across America for the past three years.

Weinstock estimates that 20 percent of the 300 people who came to his program last year had never been to the synagogue before.

Shabbat Across America is based on “Turn Friday Night Into Shabbos,” a similar program developed 25 years ago at Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, where Buchwald was educational director. Synagogues that sign up receive materials including a 21-page guidebook to help them run the evening, as well as promotional materials and sample discussion points.

Follow-up is built into the program. Participating congregations are directed to make sure each dinner table includes one or two longtime members to host the newcomers, and invite them to future synagogue activities. Names are collected, to enable follow-up phone calls.

Rabbi Camille Angel of San Francisco’s Reform Congregation Sha’ar Zahav says that in the five years her temple has been running the program, people have joined the congregation after first stepping in the door for Shabbat Across America. Some of them celebrate the evening each year as their “anniversary,” she says.

By encouraging congregants to invite their unaffiliated friends, the program gives people “permission” to do what many wish they could do more often, she says. “Sometimes we’re a little shy to invite our friends or colleagues into our spiritual homes,” she says.

Jacques Lurie, executive director of The Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Philadelphia, considers the program “a phenomenal asset” not only for newcomers, but for members of the congregation “who don’t have a deep knowledge of Shabbat, as well as for our more seasoned folks, who have the opportunity to learn new Shabbat songs.”

Rabbis and congregational leaders say they also appreciate the free publicity Buchwald’s national advertising campaign gives them.

Robin Dern, executive director of Congregation Beth Sholom in Anchorage, Ala., says her Reform congregation “isn’t exactly visible,” particularly in a state where many people move to escape, not find, their Jewish roots.

When the national ads for Shabbat Across America air on local radio stations, she says many people call the synagogue, and even if they don’t sign up for the dinner, they request information on other congregational services.

“We have a small budget, and this allows us to reach a much greater population of unaffiliated Jews than we could on our own,” she says.

Despite the praise heaped on the program by participating congregations, the national leadership of the Reform and Conservative movements is more circumspect.

Naomi Gewirtz, assistant outreach director for the Union for Reform Judaism, says the number of Reform congregations taking part in the program drops by about 25 each year. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, notes the same phenomenon in his own movement.

While both Epstein and Gewirtz praise the program for its outreach goals, they question whether it really brings in that many new members. They also feel a certain discomfort with the Orthodox service it promotes.

“It’s a mixed bag,” says Epstein, who says that while many Conservative rabbis and congregational leaders “like it very much,” others feel it’s “becoming tired.”

He adds: “The concept is very good, and I’ve endorsed it. The challenge is to create within the congregations a vehicle to make it more than a one-time thing.”

The United Synagogue sponsors its own movement-wide counterpart, Friday Night Live, which takes place monthly and thus offers more regularity than the once-a-year Shabbat Across America, Epstein says. “The congregations I’ve talked to find it to be more appealing.”

The Reform movement posts supplemental materials on its Web site for its congregations taking part in Shabbat Across America, to provide them with Reform-friendly alternative services.

Rabbi Jane Litman of Congregation Beth El, a Reform temple in Berkeley, Calif., says she uses those supplemental services in the Shabbat Across America evenings she’s held for the past five years.

It’s appropriate, she says, to provide a Reform service for people who come to her temple, just like those who are looking for an Orthodox service will go to one of the nearby Orthodox synagogues that night.

But she sees this as a strength of the program, not a weakness. And despite Gewirtz’s claim that Shabbat Across America doesn’t draw many new people to the Reform movement, Litman says it has, at least in her congregation.

And it’s wrong to focus on numbers as a measure of success, she says. Referring to the teaching that “if one who saves a single life, it is as if he saved the entire world,” she says, “If one unaffiliated Jew walks in and feels comfortable in synagogue and becomes active, that’s good enough for me.”

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