12 local synagogues a part of Shabbat Across America

Next Friday night, March 7, the entire country is invited to Shabbat dinner.

That's the night 750 synagogues across the United States and Canada will open their doors for the 7th annual Shabbat Across America.

As in past years Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist congregations will participate.

The brainchild of the National Jewish Outreach Program, Shabbat Across America was designed to draw in unaffiliated and otherwise wayward Jews of all stripes, introducing them to the beauty and significance of Shabbat.

Over the years, the program has grown exponentially, and organizers expect this year to have the greatest number of participating congregations yet.

Local synagogues participating for the first time this year are Conservative Congregations Kol Shofar in Tiburon and B'nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.

"Every time we have an opportunity to celebrate a Jewish holiday or event, we take it," said B'nai Shalom Rabbi Gordon Freeman. "One of the most difficult problems most synagogues have is marketing. We can market to our own congregation, but attracting outside people is hard. This is a good way to do that."

Freeman says his synagogue is pulling out all the stops to make next week's Shabbat extra special. Greeters will be on hand to welcome all newcomers and explain the evening's activities. A delicious meal will be served, followed by services.

Says Freeman, "We usually have a drash, but in its place, we'll spend more time getting people into the service, helping them find their places and explaining what's going on."

Over at Alameda's Temple Israel, Rabbi Allen Bennett is equally excited. "We'll have a potluck Shabbat dinner provided by our religious-school class," he says. "The kids will lead the service and I will do the educational interpolations. Afterwards, there'll be a big oneg Shabbat.

"We are, hands down, the most fabulous temple in Alameda," joked Bennett (Temple Israel is Alameda's only Jewish congregation), "so anyone who comes here won't regret it."

According to the National Jewish Outreach Program, since its inception Shabbat Across America has introduced at least 350,000 Jews to Shabbat in more than 1,500 synagogues.

The program has been endorsed by many of American Jewry's leading religious and social institutions, including the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, hundreds of Orthodox congregations and the American Sephardi Federation.

Participating synagogues see many tremendous benefits to the program beyond simply helping them bring in potential new temple members.

"People have a need to express joy," says Freeman. "Ninety-nine percent of us go through the work week and rarely have a joyful time. The whole meaning of Shabbat is to provide an opportunity for joy."

Adds Bennett, "There's a dawning awareness out there — and I'm not sure it's confined to just Jews — that if we don't hang together, we will hang separately. The more anxious people get, and the more isolated they feel, the more important this kind of opportunity becomes."

Local congregations participating in Shabbat Across America on Friday, March 7 include: Chabad of the East Bay, Berkeley; Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, San Francisco; Congregation Beth El, Berkeley; Kol Shofar, Tiburon; Temple Israel, Alameda; Chabad of Noe Valley, San Francisco; Congregation B'nai Shalom, Walnut Creek; Congregation Shir Shalom, Sonoma; Congregation Kol Emeth, Palo Alto; Peninsula Sinai Congregation, Foster City; and Temple Beth Hillel, Richmond.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.