[Note: This post is a continuation of Rabbi Andy Bachman's "Confronting Shabbat" argument.]
By the 1870s in America, the one aspect of Shabbat observance that was perceived of as within the “rabbinic reach” of liberal leadership was attendance at Shabbat services. And so, the “radical remedial measures were the consequence of this dilemma, and both were for some time the cause for bitter intramural controversy,” according to Gunther Plaut. The measures that Plaut refers to are Sunday worship (an eventual loser) and Friday night services.
(As an aside, in a 1994 survey done by the Reform movement’s Commission on Synagogue Music, average attendance for Friday evening services in synagogues was at approximately 100 people. Our synagogue, which averages a range of about 50-80, ranks among 20-30% of the congregations of our size. On special nights, like Junior Choir or a speaker, the number rises.)
One effect of moving programming to Sunday, though it failed for worship, was the innovation of “Sunday School” or what Beth Elohim has historically referred to as “Religious School.”
I like to joke that if you were to ask kids on Sunday mornings if they want to be either “religious” or in “school,” you know what the answer is going to be. So at the very least, that institution needs a commission of its own for a new name!
Still, one deeply negative result of this 140 year old tradition is the greater distancing it causes between congregants and Shabbat. Especially in liberal, non-orthodox communities–where one is choosing not being commanded to observe tradition–few people are going to come to synagogue on Friday night, again on Saturday morning, and yet again for education (I mean school) on Sunday.
No way, no how.
I would argue for a another set of radical, remedial measures, namely flipping the model and making Saturday the central experience of the week for families in their journey to educate their children in the Jewish tradition. Two programs I’ve begun are meant to begin to address this.
One, Shir L’Shabbat, which is a Shabbat morning song session with a wonderful young teacher named Evan Schultz. This is geared toward kids between the ages 0-7 and their parents. It’s casual, on the bima, with guitar, songs, challah and grape juice. People, I think it’s fair to say, love it.
The other is moving the traditional Religious School grade service from Friday nights (that would be one of the nights where attendance swells to one hundred) to Saturday mornings. This was done with the specific goal in mind of breaking the cycle of families scrambling to attend Saturday morning services a few times in the months leading up to Bar/Bat Mitzvah, never to really return again.
Saturday morning grade services allow families to experience Shabbat time over a longer, slower time; it expands the accordian, if you will, and creates space to be in Shabbat, as opposed to simply “do” Shabbat at the beginning on Friday night and then watch it recede into the rear view mirror of the weekend’s other jumble of activity.
These are not new arguments. Felix Levy, addressing the 1936 Central Conference of American Rabbis, challenged his colleagues with these words: “First and foremost we should free ourselves and others of the prevailing notion that Sabbath observance means exclusively attendance at Temple service.”
In other words, you don’t have to be in shul, fool.
The table at home on Friday night is a “mikdash me’at,” a miniature altar akin to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem upon which sacrifices were made. The social fabric of a home cooked meal; candles; songs; a ritualized relaxation and celebration–these are the eternal pedagogic building blocks of Ahad Ha’am’s famous dictum: “More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.” It acknowledges the intimacy, the utterly personal aspects of identity formation and moral development and roots it in the home.
It may seem counter-intuitive at first but the rush to a large program on Friday night has, more often than not, wiped the slate clean on Saturday morning, leaving that time for the ritual of Bar/Bat Mitzvah, while everyone else goes about their business.
Plaut, in 1965, saw a window and argued before his colleagues that the arrival on the seen of the Saturday morning Bar/Bat Mitzvah service. “We do not always like what comes along with this reincarnation, but I say frankly that it may turn out to be the formerly unwelcome Bar Mitzvah who with his breaking voice, imperfect Hebrew and his man relatives (?) and friends has given us an entirely new lease on Sabbath celebration. The least he will have done is to have given us a new basis for development, for he has reopened the doors to synagogue on Sabbath mornings and, even more important, has caused Jews to remember the Sabbath in ways they had not remembered it for some time.”
One of the things I say to kids on the bima each Shabbat after they’ve chanted their Bar/Bat Mitzvah portion, is “I hope you come back and chant for us again…” which is what most of us rabbis say. But if every Shabbat is a new kid with a hundred new people who never come again, when will that kid come back? And to what?
In order to mean what we say, we have to develop the ground for some new trees to take root.
So that “Shabbat Shalom” isn’t Hi and Goodbye on Friday night, we should be fearless in our pursuit of new forms and new ideas.