Shabbat with Friends is intentionally a different model of Jewish community. The main reason SWF is different is that our focus is entirely on the Jewish Sabbath. We do not offer programs or worship for the Jewish festivals, even the High Holidays. Even our focus on the Sabbath is selective, not comprehensive. We focus on the Shabbat home traditions exclusively, leaving formal Sabbat worship to the synagogues. That is why we do not hold any Saturday morning gatherings so as not to conflict with Shabbat morning services at the local synagogues. While we do hold Friday evening gatherings, we do not offer a formal Kabbalat Shabbat service featured at the congregations.
Our reason for not holding formal services, is that we believe that for decades the Shabbat home traditions have been neglected by Conservative, Reform, and Renewal congregations in favor of formal worship in the synagogue. In the process, the beautiful and rich home traditions have steadily declined in most liberal communities. Specifically, I am talking about the holding of festive meals at home, the practice of Shabbat hospitality, the customs of singing around the Shabbat table conversation, and home practices of group Torah study to name a few.
As a former congregational rabbi, I saw this imbalance up close. Most synagogue programming focused on activities within the synagogue building with little or no cultivation of what I call the “Shabbat table culture” among the membership of the synagogue. A Shabbat table culture is when a significant number of people in the community share Shabbat with others in their homes. A Shabbat table culture thrives when hospitality is a central value in the community so that many people encounter each other in homes, around meals, and other social activity.
A Shabbat table culture is achieved through a commitment to Shabbat gatherings in homes, hospitality to other members and people visiting the community. A Shabbat table culture is anchored within a community by several households who regularly invite folks to their Shabbat table for meals and gatherings. Through the steadiness of these core households, other households are inspired to open up their tables. Through this cultivated process, the Shabbat table culture grows and grows and becomes a central part of a community’s identity.
For many reasons, (which I can spell out in a future post), Shabbat table cultures are extremely rare in most liberal congregations. Shabbat with Friends was created to restore Shabbat to the home, to build a vibrant Shabbat table culture in New Mexico. The role of the rabbi or Jewish educator in a community is vital for a Shabbat table culture to take hold. However, the role of the rabbi or leader educator is altered drastically in our model. He or she focuses on the cultivation of the Shabbat table culture, freed from the conventional demands of the congregational rabbinate such as managing Shabbat, festival and weekday services, serving as a life cycle officiant, balancing the many needs of running a congregation.
I describe the role of the rabbi in this model as a convener, animator (who animates group settings), facilitator. Concretely, as Rabbi of Shabbat with Friends my job is to bring people together to help rediscover the Shabbat as a spiritual center to life. Everything revolves around it and from it.
The model of Shabbat with Friends is a radical reorientation of how much of modern Jewish life is organized. It is an attempt to return to our spiritual roots. It is an argument that Shabbat is what defines who we are and that we wish to restore it to the fulcrum of our lived-out weeks, months, and years as Jews.
Your thoughtful comments are most welcome. Please click on comments to add your thoughts and reactions to this post.
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
March 2, 2023, 9 Adar 5783
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Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
Rabbi Dov is the founder of Shabbat with Friends NM. He became a rabbi at 29 after schooling at UC Berkely, Harvard, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has maintained a blog for over twenty years, giving commentary on a wide range of themes, concerns, and passions.