Shabbat With Shmuley

Shabbat dinner with Shmuley Boteach and his family in Los Angeles is called for 8 p.m. But since I’ve spent all day with him and am, frankly, exhausted, I find myself power walking through Pico-Robertson 40 minutes late and absolutely petrified that I’m about to open the door and disrupt a serene Shabbos table in the middle of Kiddush.

Ha! Here’s what I find instead: Forty people wildly cavorting in three different rooms and hallways, some talking, some drinking and yet others sleeping. There are friends and first-timers, Jews and non-Jews, African Americans, an Ethiopian and too many children to count. Dinner really begins around 9:30, with three long tables stretched across the living room and topped with baskets full of fresh herbs — basil, tarragon, cilantro, parsley — and six huge challahs.

Boteach’s father leads a gorgeous, sensual Kiddush, chanting some Middle Eastern melody while his sons and grandsons respond to his calls. Next, 10 huge platters of appetizers are served — plus nearly five courses of food, all before Hamotzi. The meat cholent course, the l’chaims (one for each person at the table) and kibitzing continue until 1 a.m., when Boteach finally heads back to his hotel. This, I learn, is what a Persian-Israeli Shabbat looks like (Boteach’s father is Iranian, and his brother’s wife is Israeli).

On the walk home, Boteach tells me it looks much the same at his home in Englewood, N.J., where his wife, Debbie, and their nine children usually welcome about 25 guests — artists, writers, politicians, interfaith leaders and media personalities — each week. When his travel schedule demands he spend Shabbat away from home, he insists upon bringing his family with him.

Shabbat can also be the time Boteach feels most alone. He is a rabbi without a shul, estranged from the Chabad community that shaped him. Without a formal community to call his own (though he davens at the Modern Orthodox shul Kesher in Englewood), Boteach says he finds community in unlikely places. His Shabbat circle is, in many ways, a real-life manifestation of his Jewish vision, composed as much of non-Jews and secular Jews as it is of Orthodox Jews. And, ironically, his estrangement from the Chabad community hasn’t stopped his children from gravitating there — his two eldest daughters have already declared their intention to marry Chabadniks — and, he says, often drag him to Crown Heights for Shabbat.

For Boteach, the blessing of Shabbat goes beyond ritual observance. The organizing principle of a shomer Shabbat lifestyle, he says, ensures the centrality of family. As such, Shabbat has become the time when Boteach can be most present as a father, spending time with his kids, learning Torah and playing games.

“My principal, foremost objective is to raise inspired children and be a positive influence for my kids,” he says. “I love being a father, I love every minute of it.”