Those with memory cells intact will recall that last Wednesday I wrote from the Turnpike after the bike ride and talked about the new kind of terrorism that Israel is experiencing, especially in Jerusalem, babies run over, soldiers stabbed. Yesterday the worst yet of this depravity hit a synagogue in Har Nof. I cannot begin to fathom such brutality, or that it was applauded in many parts of the region. It is hard not to be really angry about this and want to lash out. And just imagine if the reverse had occurred – we might be looking at WWIII. While there are no words to make it better, do reach out to Israeli friends and relatives to let them know they are not alone, and keep the faith that brought us back to our ancestral home and helped us build it in such awesome ways.
I want to start a new thread and talk about what is to many Jews a rather scary word, Shabbat. The word can actually be scary – it conjures up all kinds of faith propositions and rules and no no’s. Secular Jews would seem to have no time for it. But wait. Right now arguably the most famous secular American Jew is none other than Michael Steinhardt. He is one of the first prominent hedge fund managers and a legend in that world, and he is a major Jewish philanthropist who has done great things for the Jewish community here and abroad. He is also a self proclaimed and proud secular Jew. Listen to what Steinhardt wrote recently:
“…to view Shabbat solely through the lens of religion fails to appreciate its depth and grandeur, two qualities that have made it the foundation of Jewish existence for millennia. It wasn’t the rules and prohibitions that transformed Shabbat into the iconic Jewish experience. It was its simple yet ingenious emphasis on the social: a community taking a break and celebrating life together.”
We would do well, Steinhardt continues, to examine the reason Shabbat has been so critical. In his view, “the heart and soul of Shabbat can be found not in the world’s synagogues but in its dining rooms. Shabbat meals are a time of social connection, spiritual engagement and intellectual debate – the foundations of our community – all centered on the cornerstones of universal human yearning: good food and good drink.”
And he goes on to say, “Speaking from personal experience as a secular Jew, it is at Shabbat meals – whether as a host or a guest – that I feel most profoundly and intimately Jewish. Among food, friendship and family, debating the news, joking and sharing gleanings of Jewish wisdom ancient or modern – at these moments, I feel more connected to the millennia-long trajectory of the Jewish people than I do anywhere outside of Israel.”
Steinhardt goes on to talk about Birthright Israel alumni, a large population that is near and dear to his heart because he is one of Birthright’s major funders. Some of your kids have heard him talk at the big concluding gathering in Jerusalem. He writes about how hard it is to retain the connections and Jewish fervor that alumni bring back to the States with them, and suggests that a focus on the Friday night Shabbat experience would be a great start. Friday night meals work because they don’t require deep knowledge, particular religious beliefs or faith in the supernatural. As simple as they are to make happen, they have the potential to revitalize Jewish commitments among those for whom Jewish experience has lost some (or all) of its interest and edge. How about that coming from Michael Steinhardt!? I wouldn’t phrase it the way he does, thinking time in shul can be just as good or better, but I like this too and am sure it will resonate with hundreds of thousands of Jews.
At Beth El, besides the informal network of Shabbat dinners that happen because you make them happen, we have created the program we call “Lighten Up: Friday Night Invites. “ I launched it in one of my It’s Wednesdays four or five years ago. Since then, each year some 40-50 families host other Beth El families, usually on winter Friday evenings. The dinners are always a big success, both for the Shabbat experience noted above and for the community they help build. This year we would like to have 60 or more such dinners. Let Geryl Baer (firstname.lastname@example.org) know if you can host one or two families/ couples as part of this effort, or if you would like to be invited. There is no more accessible connection to the millennia-long trajectory of our people.
In the meantime, join me in praying for the peace of Jerusalem and have a good day. Bill Rudolph
P.S. Services have currency too. Friday night we have two at 6:30, one of which is the instrumental Kol Haneshama. Shabbat morning includes the new Minyan Olamim at 10:30. Tuesday night at 7:30 is our 40th or 50th Thanksgiving service together with our neighbors from Bethesda United Methodist Church – at Beth El this time.