Building a Robust, Reform Shabbat Community

shabbatBy Harry Frischer

Imagine a room filled to capacity each Shabbat with worshippers who derive deep satisfaction from regular communal worship. Imagine the ruach of many voices lifted together each week in energetic, musical, participatory prayer. Imagine a community whose members enjoy rich, rewarding spiritual lives, nourished by regular prayer, ritual, and learning.

Imagine a worship community where participants come to know each other and care for each other. Imagine a worship community where members celebrate together in times of joy, take care of each other in times of illness, bereavement, and other times of need. A community where members are welcomed in each other’s homes for Shabbat and other occasions, and where members enjoy each other’s company both inside and outside the synagogue.

Imagine a worship community that values Jewish learning and literacy, and where members find depths of meaning in the regular study of Jewish texts. A community where members are inspired to acquire the skills needed to navigate Hebrew liturgy, and where members regularly chant Torah and haftarah, deliver divrei Torah, and lead in so many other ways.

Imagine a community that celebrates Shabbat as a genuine day of rest: a day of respite from the relentless demands of work. A day to slow down and recharge, and to resist the pressure to run from activity to activity. A day for spending time with family and friends, for leisurely meals, for walks in the park, and afternoon naps.

Imagine a growing, robust and thriving Shabbat community. A community of all ages – from young families with small children to seniors, and everyone in between – who share a common passion for the joyous celebration of Shabbat, which helps meet the deepest longings of the soul.

Imagine a Reform Shabbat community that embraces everything described above and also the inclusiveness and commitment to social justice that are the hallmarks of progressive, liberal Judaism.

Reform Judaism has long valued Shabbat as a time of rest, learning and worship, offering a profound spiritual experience even for Reform Jews. The celebration of Shabbat as described above fits is squarely within our Reform tradition, and is an important part of our liberal heritage, not some artifact best left to other Jewish movements. As Rabbi Eric Yoffie said in his remarks during Kabbalat Shabbat at the Union for Reform Judaism’s 2011 Biennial Convention:

And where did people get the idea that to observe Shabbat means to be Orthodox? Isaac Mayer Wise would turn over in his grave. For him, Shabbat – and this means a Reform Shabbat – was at the very heart of liberal Judaism.

Many of our Reform congregations work hard to provide transformative, moving worship and serious Jewish learning, and they succeed in doing so. Each synagogue has its own group of regulars who can be counted on to attend services, adult education programs, and other offerings. But these regulars typically are a small fraction of synagogue membership, and we are a long way from having the thriving, growing and robust worship communities contemplated above. Rabbi Janet Marder has observed that a critical task for Reform Judaism is the “ongoing work of expanding the committed core,” thereby creating a “culture of commitment” that can inspire a Judaism of “passion and devotion.” A robust Shabbat worship community is that “committed core.”

Expanding a Shabbat worship community beyond the group of existing synagogue regulars, to create a thriving, sizable, cross-generational core is not easy work. It is not a matter of merely changing the Shabbat service, adding new music or bringing in interesting speakers, as important as all of those factors may be. It involves the difficult task of inspiring congregants to want Shabbat as part of their lives, and to help them derive meaning and purpose from regular Shabbat worship, study, and rest. This important work requires the combined efforts of both clergy and lay leaders, who inspire through personal relationships, painstakingly cultivated one cup of coffee at a time, and their own Jewish engagement. It requires personal invitations, personal follow-up, and considerable hand-holding. It requires training of lay leaders and clergy, meetings, and discussion, all designed to bring the vision of a committed Shabbat community to the forefront of synagogue consciousness.

This work also cannot be dependent on focus groups or research that seeks to identify what members think they want from their synagogue. Steve Jobs famously said that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them, a quote that is particularly appropriate here. We need to show members a warm, embracing Shabbat-centered community and the observance of a Reform Shabbat that can enrich their lives and enable them to experience a closeness to God that they may never have been able to imagine on their own.

The work of expanding a Shabbat community also complements the other important project of Reform Judaism – engaging the unengaged. Our Reform congregations devote considerable effort to ignite the spark of Jewish engagement where it did not previously exist, and these efforts can be very successful. With appropriate focus and effort, we can be equally successful in inspiring more of the already-engaged to higher and higher levels of engagement, learning and commitment, thereby enhancing their lives immeasurably while also expanding our committed core.

Harry Frischer is an attorney and a vice president and trustee of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City.

cross-posted on the blog