Dinners, services and celebrations spread joys of Shabbat

How is next Shabbat different from all other Shabbats? Ostensibly, not at all: Thousands of shuls will hold services populated by hundreds of thousands of congregants across the nation. Oceans of wine will be poured and tons of candles burned.

But for many of those attending services, drinking wine and lighting candles, it will be their first Shabbat in a long, long while — or maybe ever.

Friday, March 8 marks the sixth annual "Shabbat Across America/Canada" a continent-wide program aimed at bringing the joys of Shabbat to everyone. Organized by the New York-based National Jewish Outreach Program, more than 600 synagogues and Jewish organizations and 60,000 participants are anticipated.

"I think it's a wonderful way to reach people who are unaffiliated, or interested in getting involved or more involved in the Jewish community but don't have a sense of how best to do that," said Rabbi Margie Jacobs of Richmond's Temple Beth Hillel.

In all, 181 Reform, 174 Conservative, 100 Orthodox and 12 Reconstructionist congregations will be participating this year.

Jacobs' Reform congregation — one of five participating in the Bay Area — is planning a vegetarian potluck dinner and "typical Shabbat freilach," said Cantor Howard Cohen, prior to a song-filled service.

"It's really an opportunity to enjoy being Jewish and celebrate it in a safe, friendly and supportive environment. It's not so much an obligation as it is an opportunity — an opportunity to connect," said Cohen, the congregation's cantor for the past 17 years. "And I'd like to emphasize the importance of people bringing their children along. I believe it's critical to have children involved in synagogue life with us."

Cohen hopes that 10 or more curious individuals will augment the normal Shabbat crowd of 40 to 50.

Dinners and services are also planned at Sonoma's Reform Congregation Shir Shalom, Reform Temple Beth El of Aptos and Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth of Palo Alto.

Reform Congregation Sha'ar Zahav of San Francisco is promoting the event as "bring a friend to shul" night, and plans for a light reception prior to services.

At Shir Shalom, the temple's Shabbat Across America coordinator, Peggy Lipson, prepped for the event by sending cards to "every Jew we know about in the Sonoma Valley." The 120-family congregation is aiming for 100 people to show up for services, over three times its normal turnout of roughly 30.

Instead of hosting a single event, 15 or 20 families at Berkeley's Congregation Beth El volunteered to open up their Shabbat dinners to guests.

"Certainly there's no pressure to join the congregation, but we'd like people to celebrate Shabbat and we'd like them to celebrate it with us," said Maggie Sontag, Beth El's program director. "Perhaps this will bring something new into people's lives."

Large Shabbat dinners are a weekly occurrence at Chabad of the East Bay and Chabad of Noe Valley, but the longtime Shabbat Across America participants say these dinners are even larger than usual.

On any given Friday night, 15 to 35 guests break bread with Rabbi Gedalia Potash of Chabad of Noe Valley and his wife, Leah. At last year's Shabbat Across America dinner, however, the young rabbi hosted 45 guests — and worried about running out of room in his house.

"When someone shows up at your door, it always makes it more exciting. And this one always has a full house. Even people who know they can't come by for dinner drop by afterwards to shmooze or sing Jewish songs," said the London-born rabbi.

"I think this is a wonderful way to help people identify as Jews. It adds a double strength to know that you're not just doing this on your own but participating with other Jews not only in the city but across the whole United States. It adds impact to what you're doing."

Slightly fewer Bay Area congregations are participating in the program than last year, when 11 did so.

Nationally, a number of congregations are not participating due to the unfortunate scheduling conflict with a Central Conference of American Rabbis trip to Israel. Yitzchak Rosenbaum, the NJOP's program director, believes 50 to 75 more congregations in the U.S. and Canada might have participated if not for the scheduling error. He assures, however that next year's date — March 7 — has been checked very carefully.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.