Spreading the word on beauty of Shabbat

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For many Jews, Friday night comes and goes, with little thought given to the fact that it's the Sabbath.

The National Jewish Outreach Program has been trying to change that.

Through its national program "Shabbat Across America/Canada," the NJOP enlists synagogues across the United States and Canada to invite the unaffiliated to share in the beauty of Shabbat.

According to an American Jewish Committee survey, 46 percent of Jews observe the Sabbath in some manner. Only an estimated 10 percent observe the Sabbath fully without the active use of modern technology.

"In today's dizzying technology-driven world, the notion of a 'day of rest' is as antiquated to many Americans as a rotary telephone. The so-called new economy has been great for many businesses, but it is wreaking havoc on people's lives," commented Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, founder and director of NJOP.

As in prior years, local synagogues spanning the religious spectrum are gearing up for this year's Shabbat Across America/Canada, which will fall on March 23.

Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Chabad of the East Bay is a veteran of the NJOP program, participating in it for the past four years. While having 20 people around his Friday night table is the norm, during Shabbat Across America that number usually doubles to about 40.

"We celebrate Shabbos anyway, but this is a way of formalizing it," he said.

With the help of radio advertisements and added publicity, he said, he draws in Cal students as well as people in his Berkeley neighborhood.

"It becomes an exciting event and everyone wants to do it," he said. "There's a buzz going on, the word is out on the street."

Like other Chabad rabbis, Ferris always opens his home to those who want to experience Shabbat. But without a formal invitation, the rabbi said, many are "shy to take the plunge."

"It's a crime that so many are in their inner prison," he said, and they feel they must observe every single mitzvah.

"Take it one step at a time," the rabbi advised. "Do what you enjoy and leave the rest behind. Keep it fun, because if it stops being fun, you don't do it."

Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto has participated in the program for the last few years.

"We're having a Shabbat dinner, with a speaker, Stanford Professor Arnold Eisen," said Joan Rabin, the synagogue's administrative assistant. Eisen — also a Kol Emeth member — will talk about his new book, "The Jew Within."

"He always draws such a great crowd," said Rabin. "If anyone can draw them in, he can."

Rabbi Gedalia Potash of Chabad of Noe Valley in San Francisco also regularly hosts Shabbat dinners. But he hopes more will drop in so they can learn about "the richness of having Shabbos in one's life."

"There's a real beauty in having an island of time to spend with family and not getting caught up in business of society and the world," he said.

Rabbi Melanie Aron of Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos has also participated in the program for the last few years.

Aron credited the program for bringing in new people, who later on, become members.

"We have an early service, and then dinner," she said. Last year, the Reform congregation held Israeli folk dancing, which they will do again this year.

"People who don't belong to the synagogue feel a part of things for the evening," Aron said, "and it's also nice for our members, to turn Friday night into Shabbat."

Synagogues participating in the program are: Chabad of Noe Valley, San Francisco; Chabad of the East Bay, Berkeley; Congregation Beth Israel, Berkeley; Congregation Kol Emeth, Palo Alto; Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, San Francisco; Congregation Shir Hadash, Los Gatos; Hillel of Silicon Valley, San Jose; Orthodox Minyan, Palo Alto; Peninsula Sinai Congregation, Foster City; Temple Beth Hillel, Richmond and Temple Beth Israel, Stockton.

To register for the program, call NJOP toll-free at 888-SHABBAT, or visit its Web site at www.njop.org.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."