What Can We Learn From Wendy’s Shabbat?

‘Wendy’s Shabbat’ directed by Rachel Myers, screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. Photo Credit: Wendy’s Shabbat/3 Penny Design

By Amy Schilit Benarroch

Wendy’s Shabbat” is a short film about a group of retired senior citizens who celebrate Shabbat together weekly at Wendy’s in Palm Desert, California. I recently saw it at the Tribeca Film Festival. Here are my main takeaways of what we can learn from our elders about shaping Jewish community for all.

1. Peer Leadership is essential

In the film, Sharon Goodman, 79 had the idea to go to Wendy’s on a Friday evening when she had nothing to do. Lou Silberman, 91, took charge and calls Wendy’s each week to make the sure the tables are set up. Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, 97, led the prayers over the candles, challah and grape juice (Wendy’s does not allow wine). Roberta Mahler, 88, sought to connect with others after the loss of her husband and attends these weekly dinners. These seniors tried to solve their own problems and in doing so, created community for others in similar situations. Mike Uram describes this type of leadership it in his book “Next Generation Judaism,” as a key engagement tool. As a Hillel professional, he employed students as interns to connect with their peers. Shabbat and Wendy’s have been around for quite some time (Shabbat a little longer) but it was not until Ms. Goodman put the two together to solve her own problem was she able to build community amongst her peers. In your community, who will be your Ms. Goodman or your Mr. Silberman or your Rabbi Zeldin?

2. People are looking for a sense of belonging

Maybe what made summer camp so great wasn’t the immersive informal Jewish education programming, but rather cabin time. Cabin time was a chance to connect and share with the rest of my bunkmates. The seniors in the film are not seeking the most impressive cantor, rabbi or religious service – they are seeking each other. In the film, Ms. Mahler explained, “Living by yourself and having a group like going to Wendy’s gives you a feeling of belonging.” What if we view Judaism as a way to connect people to build community? In Dr. Ron Wolfson’s book “Relational Judaism,” he argues how important relationships are to transform the Jewish community. The seniors keep coming back to Wendy’s for each other (and maybe the french fries) since it’s their version of cabin time.

3. Support for all generations

As a Jewish millenial, I see a lot of initiatives to engage my demographic. Free trips, free dinners, free books, free, free, free. I wish funders would stop being so afraid about Jewish continuity and shift focus from next generation engagement to supporting all generations. How can community leaders best support all humans at any stage who want to take part in Jewish life and community? For $4 a week, Rabbi Zeldin gets a hamburger, fries, a drink, chicken nuggets and his quirky “congregation.” What the seniors at their DIY Jewish “Wendy’s Shabbat” describe is the same thing that I, as a millenial, also want from my Judaism. “I kept expecting the seniors to talk about religion, but they kept focusing instead on community and connection, which was really moving and uplifting.” Director Rachel Myers told The New York Times. There is a fear the “next generation” are not joining legacy institutions and Judaism is going to “die out.” Maybe Judaism will just look a little different and more like Wendy’s in Palm Desert and that’s okay.

What is your community’s “Wendy’s Shabbat”? How are people finding a sense of belonging and connection?

Amy Schilit Benarroch is a new mom and former Jewish educator living in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.