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Jewish Journal

Birthright Shabbat, Part 2

by David Suissa

January 16, 2013 | 11:40 am

David Suissa, President

David Suissa, President

I don’t often write about the same subject in consecutive weeks, but because my “Birthright Shabbat” column last week elicited an unusual amount of feedback, I thought I’d share some of it with you, as well as build on the idea.

Last week, I wrote about the special magic of the Friday-night Shabbat meal to attract all kinds of Jews who are disconnected from their Judaism, and I suggested a national initiative that would do for Judaism what Birthright Israel did for Israel.

The comments I received fell into two categories: “Yeah, that sounds great, but how can we make it happen?” and “We’re already doing it.”

Let’s start with the second category. Here are examples of messages I received regarding Friday-night initiatives, the first from my friend Elan Carr, a criminal prosecutor and international president of Alpha Epsilon Pi:

“Shabbat is a very powerful anti-assimilationist tool. It’s interesting — when I led weekly Shabbat services in Iraq, those servicemembers and civilians who attended, many of whom never celebrated Shabbat at home, later told me that it was a life-changing experience for them.  

“By the way, you mentioned Chabad, Hillel and Aish, but I have to let you know that AEPi is very much on this as well. We instituted a program, ‘Shabbat Across AEPi,’ and a couple of months ago, over 100 chapters of AEPi across the world hosted Shabbat dinners on the same Friday. The reason for this program is precisely to tap into the power of Shabbat dinner that you identified so well.”

Another example came from former Birthright NEXT executive Isaac Shalev:

“David, when I worked on Birthright NEXT under the leadership of Rabbi Daniel Brenner, we developed a program called NEXT Shabbat. In its first two years, it had over 70,000 participants in 49 of 50 states and Canada. It remains NEXT’s most successful and impactful program to this day.”

I was also referred to the Jewish networking site Shabbat.com, which has connected more than 30,000 registered members with Shabbat tables around the world.

The message I got from all the feedback was clear: Building Jewish connection through the Shabbat table is a no-brainer.

The real question is: How can we maximize its potential?

If the American Jewish community were to collaborate on a national Shabbat initiative on the scale of Birthright, how would that work?

Specifically, how do you organize Shabbat dinners every Friday night for hundreds of thousands of disconnected Jews across the country who have diverse tastes and interests?

This may be a complex problem, but it’s not a strategic or ideological problem. 

Above all, it’s a marketing problem.

In the same way that the Jewish community put its brains and dollars together to market Israel to the new generation, it can now do the same for Shabbat. 

The ultimate vision is of a connected network of tens of thousands of participating Shabbat tables across the country every Friday night — in synagogues, on college campuses, in private homes and at social clubs — where disconnected Jews would be invited and offered a taste of Judaism at its best.

A good model is the Passover seder.

Just about every Jew in America attends a seder. If the celebration of Jewish values in a warm atmosphere is a good idea once a year, why can’t it be a good idea every week?

Seders now are tailored to every taste imaginable, as anyone can see from the hundreds of different haggadot, which feature themes like ecology, social justice and even Hollywood.

Why not create similarly themed “content” for the Shabbat table that would appeal to different tastes and make the evening memorable?

The truth is, nothing undermines a joyful meal like empty gossip, gloomy news or a nasty argument about politics. No matter how tasty you make the brisket, it is the conversation — as well as the Jewish rituals — that gives the Shabbat evening its special meaning and makes you want to do it again the following week. 

There’s a vegan restaurant in Los Angeles’ Larchmont Village called Café Gratitude. It’s known for its wholesome and spiritual approach to the eating experience. When I was there the other night, the waitress, after telling us the specials, asked us: “Would you like to hear our question of the night?”

“Sure,” I said.

“What’s your passion?” she replied.

I know, totally corny. But you know what? It worked. It sparked a great conversation that made the evening memorable.

Maybe when Birthright Shabbat launches, that can be the first question of the night.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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