Birthright Shabbat

How do we keep Jews connected to their Judaism and prevent the further erosion of Jewish identity in American Jewry? It’s a simple question, but it’s the defining issue of our time — the one that preoccupies Jewish community leaders perhaps more than any other.

As I see it, there are two ways to approach the problem.

The first way is to dissect the problem strategically, which was done by Steven Windmueller in a recent essay titled “Sustaining 21st Century American Judaism: Examining New Options.” 

In his essay, Windmueller, who is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (and a Jewish Journal blogger), begins by setting out the premise:

“Based on current research related to the status of religious movements, it is important to begin to design strategies for synagogue organizations and their affiliates to move toward ‘sacred innovation,’ the idea of re-imagining congregational life. These initiatives come up against the new realities of the decline in American religiosity.”

Windmueller identifies “a number of operational roadblocks facing our established national religious movements and their affiliates,” such as: “Decision-making malaise, defining the competitive edge, focusing on leadership capacity and identifying alternative revenue streams.”

To address these roadblocks and confront “today’s complex realities,” he adds that movements and their congregational affiliates will need to pay specific attention to things like establishing institutional identity, managing partnerships and collaborative arrangements, and operating from “the outside in.”

They will also need to understand and examine “new models of religious engagement,” or what he calls “emergent” or alternative religious communities.

He identifies several characteristics of these new communities, such as their underdeveloped infrastructure and a greater propensity for entrepreneurship and risk tolerance.

Windmueller’s piece is important in that it analyzes the strategic “big picture” for a major community challenge.

What it doesn’t do, however, is offer practical ideas that might help us meet that challenge.

That’s why there’s a second way of approaching the problem: To focus not on analyzing the “big picture” but on finding the “big idea.”

Specifically, to find that one simple, practical, overarching idea that, if well executed, can revitalize Judaism in America. 

Here’s my candidate for that big idea: the Friday night Shabbat table.

I know what you’re thinking — too simple, too easy.

Yes, but that’s precisely what makes big ideas work: They’re simple and easy and flexible.

The Friday night Shabbat table is the Swiss Army knife of Jewish connection. Think about it. You’re the typical Jew of the new generation who’s not into Judaism or “organized religion” in general. As soon as you hear the word synagogue, you run. What can be more inviting than a great meal?

The Shabbat meal takes an idea everyone loves — Thanksgiving — and makes it a meaningful weekly experience.

The beauty of this meal is that it can be tailored to attract any taste: a poetry Shabbat, a spiritual Shabbat, a literary Shabbat, a culinary Shabbat, a storytelling Shabbat, a Zionist Shabbat, a singles Shabbat, a green Shabbat, a social justice Shabbat and so on.

Most important, by incorporating Jewish rituals, the meal glows with Jewish content. Each ritual can have personal meaning. So, while a “poetry Shabbat” would celebrate great poetry, it would be enveloped by Shabbat rituals —  lighting the candles, welcoming the angels of peace, blessing the wine and bread, singing Shabbat songs, etc. — that would encourage a personal “Jewish connection.” 

Over the years, outreach groups like Chabad, Hillel and Aish HaTorah have devoted major resources to the Friday night experience. Our local Jewish Federation, as well as other groups throughout the country, also have made efforts in that area. 

What the American Jewish community has missed, however, is the opportunity to develop a comprehensive Shabbat initiative on the scale of Birthright Israel. Just as that program gave the new generation a taste of Israel, this program would give them a taste of Judaism. 

No one idea will address all the issues outlined in Windmueller’s essay. But a Birthright Shabbat program, planned on a major scale  and adapted to the needs of different communities, has as good a chance as any to ignite a revitalization of Judaism in America.

How appropriate that the future of Judaism would rest on an idea that is 3,300 years old.

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