In the ongoing discussion of how to keep Conservative Judaism strong and vibrant, one key element is how we can engage our young adults. I’d like to offer my thoughts on this, starting with a personal story.
It was a Friday morning. My wife, Gail, and I were visiting our son, Ian, and his wife, Lisa, who had just been blessed with their first child – our first grandchild, a precious and beautiful boy named Jack. We were all glowing with the joy of a new life as everyone returned from the hospital. When Ian asked Gail if she would prepare Shabbat dinner for everyone, we were delighted that in the midst of everything going on, Ian would want to have not just a dinner that night, but a Shabbat dinner.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, because I knew that growing up all of our sons enjoyed our Shabbat dinners. After they left for college and beyond, they looked forward to our traditional Friday night meals. But Gail and I had not had the opportunity to visit Ian and Lisa on a Friday evening since they had gotten married and moved 3,000 miles away. I was particularly pleased that Ian turned down my offer to lead the Friday evening prayers, indicating that he could certainly do that himself.
And then a mystical moment occurred. With everyone gathered around the Shabbat table, Ian went over to the bassinet and he recited the blessings over his new son. As the tears welled up in my eyes, I glanced at Gail and we shared that look of two people who know exactly what the other is thinking: We must have done something right! Isn’t this the dream of parents who raise their family in a Jewish home, that their children will also maintain a Jewish home?
My story is not unique. I’ve spoken with many Jewish men across North America who described the impact that their Shabbat observances made on their children over the years. It seems to me that Shabbat observance, even at a very basic level, is critical to ensuring the future of our movement. This may be a simplistic view, but as Ahad HaAm wrote more than 100 years ago: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” After all, what is more Jewish than Shabbat dinner?
For younger adults in particular, the impact of Shabbat dinners can be substantial and life changing. Raising a family, building careers and being involved in social, educational and physical activities leave little time for synagogue involvement or any other Jewish engagement. Shabbat dinner requires hardly any additional time yet it can bring meaning, value, beauty, spirituality, intimacy, and fun to their families’ lives.
What if we could encourage all Conservative Jews to rethink their approach to Friday night dinner? What if we could help them transform an ordinary meal into a Shabbat seder, with its beautiful rituals? We all know the basics: turn off the phones, TVs, tablets, video games, etc., because Shabbat is a time for escaping the noise, stress and tumult of everyday life. Set a nice table. Enjoy a special dinner. Recite the blessings over the candles, wine and challah to create a basic level of spirituality. Bless the children, even the littlest newborns. Sing Shabbat songs and keep the younger children engaged.
At the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs we are developing guidelines for successful programs to celebrate Shabbat, within and outside the synagogue. These include guides for a Shabbat seder and suggestions for club leaders to host and model Shabbat seders in their synagogue communities. We also want to promote a culture where congregants who want to attend a Shabbat dinner are matched with those interested in hosting them.
As Conservative Jews, of course we need to attract young adults into our synagogues. Of course we need to make our prayer services more spiritually fulfilling. Of course we need to make Jewish education affordable and available. Of course we need to send our kids to Jewish summer camps and to Israel. There are many actions that should be pursued to grow and strengthen our movement, but I would suggest that we emphasize the celebration of Shabbat – in the home, with family and friends, at the Shabbat seder. Shabbat shalom!