Shabbat rekindles the spiritual flame

My grandfather, Ezra Battat, settled in San Francisco and lived here nearly 50 years. Every Friday night he and my grandmother, Fanny, hosted family Shabbat dinners that brought us all together. Those dinners were a link to our heritage — to Judaism, to San Francisco and to Baghdad and Frankfurt.

Early in his adult life Ezra traveled from his birthplace in Baghdad to the Dutch East Indies and to Europe. In every community Ezra visited, he found a synagogue where he could pray, and in every community he received an invitation to a family's Shabbat dinner.

In fact, Fanny was the daughter of a Frankfurt synagogue president, a man who had invited Ezra to a Shabbat dinner.

I was reminded of my grandfather during two recent business trips to Europe. One Friday evening I walked to the central synagogue in Brussels. I could not understand the French, and my Hebrew was rusty, but there we were saying the prayers that have linked Jews for centuries.

Afterward, some university students invited me to join them for Shabbat dinner.

During a recent trip to England, I had Shabbat dinner at the home of an American friend's in-laws.

In both instances I visited with Jews who did not know me, but who invited me to join them in making the Shabbat kadosh, holy.

These travels lead back to our community and its common frustration: Jewish continuity. Many worry about the high intermarriage and assimilation rates. Many complain about the lack of spiritual focus in their lives and seek spirituality in other religions. My Jewish peers tell me that Judaism has no relevance in their lives, though they know precious little about the history, philosophy, spirituality, legal tradition or literary legacy of our people.

And many Jews complain that no leaders have offered a decent solution to these problems, which threaten to suck the vitality out of our community.

There is something we can do. Let's start with Shabbat. We can, as individuals and as a community, dedicate ourselves to hosting or attending a Shabbat dinner at least once a month. We can set aside one night to separate the sacred from the everyday, while joining friends and family to proudly share our Jewish heritage.

I started a Shabbat dinner group in the Peninsula in September 1995. Between 15 and 25 people came to my small apartment once a month bringing potluck dishes, sharing the cost of candles, wine and challah. We held the dinners at my place for nine months.

Today, we hold monthly Shabbat dinners at the homes of others who started by coming to my place. We sing, talk and share a little Yiddishkeit, a little Jewishness. And we invite people who have no synagogue and no immediate family, but who have a desire to be with other Jews.

Why not set aside at least one Friday night a month? It's our birthright, our sacred day, our spiritual connection.

As the host, read something aloud beforehand, such as a section from the Torah, the Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) or a story from the Jewish Bulletin. Be curious and joyful.

Maybe hosting a Shabbat dinner is not a panacea for Jewish continuity. But it's a start.