In First Person: Shabbat – This one period of time is set aside just for us

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It begins every Friday at sundown.

Birdie Gintzler spends her whole week anticipating it. And, like Sarah in the Bible, the moment Shabbat ends, she's already dreaming of its return.

Come Friday at sunset, the 91-year-old can be found praying with friends in the congregation led by Rabbi Malcolm Sparer at San Francisco's Jewish Home for the Aged.

"I wouldn't miss it for anything. I open the ark and sing with the rabbi…people seem to like my voice," she said.

In Gintzler's 56 years of marriage, she and her husband regularly attended services together. When her husband passed away four years ago, the usually vibrant Gintzler felt like dying herself.

"I didn't think I could make it on my own," said Gintzler, who still talks to her husband every night. "I really believed I would die. But the shul and the congregants kept me going."

Today Gintzler, who has been living at the Home for the past six years, serves as president of its residents' council. One of her favorite duties is telling new residents where to go for Shabbat services.

Shabbat celebrations are "a great way to welcome newcomers," she said, noting that a kiddush meal is served in the dining room after services each Friday as is a special lunch following Saturday's Torah reading.

In keeping with the day of rest, the Home's cafes and clinics close for Shabbat. Instead, said Sparer, family and friends are invited to join residents in celebrating the day.

While it may be easy to picture a group of elderly residents gathered around a table for Shabbat dinner, it is somewhat harder to imagine a group of twenty- and thirtysomething singles giving up what could be a Friday night on the town to share a Shabbat potluck.

Yet for many members of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Young Adults Division, monthly Shabbat dinners offer a welcome respite from the singles scene.

"You can go out dancing or to the bars any night of the week," said Gail Foorman, an active YAD member who frequently hosts Shabbat dinners for the group at her home. "I believe young Jewish adults are yearning for something more spiritual."

Although she regularly attends Shabbat services at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom and serves as songleader at the city's Congregation Sherith Israel, Foorman insists that nothing is as rewarding as these Friday-night dinners spent with her peers. In fact, she admits to having been dubbed "the Shabbat dinner queen."

YAD Judaica co-chairs Jethro Busch and Rick Ross organize dinners at private homes in San Francisco and on the Peninsula the first Friday of every month. Each of these First Friday dinners attracts up to 100 Jewish adults.

To make the hosts' job easier, all the meals are vegetarian potlucks and pre-assembled Shabbat baskets are delivered to the host's home in advance. The baskets include all the ritual items needed for Shabbat: candlesticks, a kiddush cup, challah cover, kippot, prayer books, hand-washing basin and a "How to Host a First Friday Shabbat Dinner" guidebook.

Many say Shabbat observance creates a more positive outlook. For Dr. Brian Kaye and his wife, Fran Tannenbaum Kaye, the decision last year to honor Shabbat spawned a complete change in their lifestyle.

The couple, who are in their 30s and have two children, were living in Castro Valley and driving on Saturdays to Oakland's modern Orthodox Congregation Beth Jacob when they decided to become shomer Shabbat, or Shabbat-observant.

"Never mind that it was one of the worst years in the history of the real estate market," recalled Tannenbaum Kaye, explaining that they sold their Castro Valley home in order to purchase a new house in Oakland within walking distance of the synagogue.

"Once we decided to bite the bullet and do it, there was no looking back. Now it's so wonderful to be able to spend Shabbat as part of the community," she said.

"As we became more religious, we talked to the kids [8-year-old Naomi and 5-year-old Josh] and helped them make the transition by emphasizing all the positive aspects of a day spent together."

As far as the youngsters are concerned, Shabbat means "special snacks on Fridays at Oakland Hebrew Day School" and "lots of time to play with our friends," Naomi said. "We are always having people over, now that we live so close to our friends at shul."

Josh said he likes walking to shul with his mom and dad and "looking at all the flowers and rocks and stuff along the way."

Yet, although they make it look easy, both parents and kids are quick to admit that keeping Shabbat takes effort and requires advance planning — especially given the unusual schedules they follow.

When Brian Kaye is not running his private rheumatology practice, he teaches at Stanford University's School of Medicine, lectures on arthritis in both the Jewish and general communities, serves as president of the board of the Oakland Hebrew Day School and attends Torah classes at Beth Jacob.

Tannenbaum Kaye is equally busy. Besides volunteering at various synagogue events, she also studies the Talmud and plays chamber music.

"We live in a busy world with busy lives. But at least we know this one period of time is set aside just for us. In our modern world we need Shabbat more than ever before. In a sense, it frees us," said Brian Kaye.

His wife agreed. "Sometimes, when it's Shabbat and the phone starts ringing off the hook," she observed, "I just look at it and think: What would we do without this day?"