The best way to jump start Jewish life in non-Orthodox Jewish communities would be for the non-Orthodox movements to reclaim Friday Night Shabbat Dinners.
By Dave Neil
In their insightful article “The Pew Survey Reanalyzed: More Bad News, but a Glimmer of Hope,” Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer point out how the future for non-Orthodox American Jewry is very much in peril. In light of that fact I would like to make a suggestion.
Since according to current population projections, the Orthodox Jews who are keeping Shabbat are doubling in number every generation, and the non-Orthodox Jews who are mostly not keeping Shabbat are seeing their numbers cut in half every generation, it behooves the non-Orthodox movements to make a national effort to promote the observance of ‘Friday night Shabbat dinners’ in their local communities.
Obviously there is more than just Shabbat dinners that separate the Orthodox from the other movements in terms of the Orthodox’ s success demographically (e.g. higher birthrate), but promoting Shabbat dinners may prove to be the single most effective way for the non-Orthodox movements to begin to strengthen themselves.
The simplest and easiest way for the movements to put this into action is by asking those families in their synagogues who already have traditional Friday night dinners in their homes to invite over other families who do not typically celebrate Friday night dinners so they can savor the Shabbat experience together. If done properly, the Shabbat dinners sell themselves and over time you would see a doubling, or even tripling, of the number of families in each community observing Shabbat dinner. By following this approach the non-Orthodox movements could make their communities much stronger.
One strong point in our favor (for whoever makes the pitch) is that there is an abundance of sociological evidence which shows that having dinner together as a family is very important to the physical and emotional health of our children, especially of adolescents.
In this day and age it is even more important, for at least one night a week, to have everyone in the family turn off their cell-phones for at least one hour, sit down together as a family and enjoy great food, Challah, wine, engage in meaningful conversations, and if possible sing – all while basking in the light of the Friday night candles.
Shabbat observance should not be considered something that only a fringe group of Jews observe. Shabbat’s centrality to Judaism is obvious, being the only ritual mentioned in the Ten Commandments. Jews who want to just “keep the basic tenets of Judaism” by keeping the Ten Commandments should include Shabbat in the repertoire of what they observe.
Those engaged in follow-up programming with Birthright alumni have found that bringing Birthright alumni together to celebrate Shabbat dinners is one of the most effective ways to get Birthright alumni to feel connected to Jewish life in their home community after returning from Israel.
Communities which celebrate Shabbat should invite groups of Birthright alumni to spend Shabbat with them for a joint family and group Shabbat experience. Imagine what a powerful experience that could be for Birthright alumni.
If anyone reading this is in any position to help promote Friday Shabbat dinners either in your own synagogue or to promote Friday dinners with Birthright alumni, please do so as the future of American Jewry depends on it. Don’t expect the rabbi of your community to take on this project, as I have long advocated for this and have found they, for whatever reason, end up not taking this project on locally. If you are capable of organizing this and you truly care about the Jewish future here is your opportunity to make a huge difference. It is not as hard as you might think. You can directly strengthen the future of American Jewry by turning on one or more Jewish families and young people to the beauty of the Friday night Shabbat dinner experience.
Dave Neil is a PR consultant and lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children and has a special interest in Jewish Continuity.
[Update: Just today, The Forward is reporting that NEXT, Birthright’s alumni network is discontinuing their Shabbat dinner program at the end of this month.]