January 22, 2019

My holy peeps

Few things in Jewish life get a rabbi more excited than the chance to help Jews marry other Jews. One reason is the difficulty factor: It’s always been a challenge to convince young Jews, especially the unaffiliated, to limit their marriage options to the 2 percent of the population that is Jewish.

Another, less publicized, problem is that the Jewish community is not immune to the trends occurring in the rest of society, where, among other things, the new generation keeps putting marriage off.

According to a cover story by Katie Bolick in The Atlantic magazine this month, in 1960, the median age in the United States for a first marriage was 23 for men and 20 for women. Today, it is 28 and 26. This new generation is also marrying less. In 1960, more than half the population ages 18 to 29 had already tied the knot. Today, that figure is 22 percent. 

The article states that these numbers reflect “major attitudinal shifts.” According to a study by the Pew Research Center, a full 43 percent of Gen-Xers think “marriage is becoming obsolete.”

Whether Jews mirror these larger trends, it’s clear that the societal landscape is changing, and that rabbis are looking for new and compelling ways to connect single Jews to the time-honored ideal of “a Jewish marriage.” Urging them to come to shul on Shabbat or attend a Torah class during the week is hardly enough. And the high-pressure “singles events” can often snuff out the spontaneity of a romantic encounter.

But, based on my experience last Friday night, I can tell you that one synagogue in Pico-Robertson has found a compelling and even biblical way to attract the single crowd: a great Shabbat meal with lots of singing and plenty of good kosher wine.

Under a new “young adult” initiative, Beth Jacob Congregation is now offering, on at least one Friday night each month, a complete Shabbat experience: evening prayers, a catered meal, recitation of all the blessings, words of Torah from Rabbi Kalman Topp, Shabbat songs, kosher wine, coffee and dessert, schmoozing until the late hours and, of course, the featured (if unspoken) attraction — the opportunity to meet your soul mate.

Since the program was launched earlier this year, attendance has grown from a few dozen to more than 200 singles — helped, no doubt, by the very reasonable price of $15 per person (the synagogue subsidizes about half of the cost).

This idea of reaching out to singles on Friday night is not new. My friend Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, founder of the Chai Center, has been hosting his “Shabbat meal for 30 strangers” at his home for years, with more than a few success stories.

Also, Sinai Temple has its popular monthly “Friday Night Live” events, where hundreds of singles experience a joyous synagogue service led by the charismatic duo of musician Craig Taubman and Rabbi David Wolpe.

The new program at Beth Jacob marries components from both of those:  a synagogue service (Orthodox style, no instruments) followed by a family-style Shabbat meal. This dual model has long been a staple of outreach groups like Chabad, Aish HaTorah and Hillel, but certainly not of old and venerable shuls like Beth Jacob.

Personally, I’d love every shul in America to follow this model. For one thing, going through the Shabbat meal experience puts people in a holy mood. It makes you think of family and of sharing the warmth of tradition. The event I attended at Beth Jacob was imbued with holiness. How could it not be? The Friday night meal is so full of holy rituals it might as well be a mini-seder.

These holy rituals bring home the notion that the act of meeting your soul mate is as holy as the act of marriage itself. In many ways, Friday night is when a Jewish marriage comes to life — when a couple learns the art of sanctifying time. And what is a loving marriage but the sanctification of time? And what is the sanctification of time if not those moments in the presence of your soul mate, when you are moved to carry yourself with Shabbat-level holiness and dignity?

I can’t say what level of holiness the 200 single Jews felt on Friday night or whether anyone met their future soul mate, but I can say that the holy energy of Shabbat seemed to diffuse the usual anxieties of being at a “singles” event.

As I watched the joyful scene, I thought back to a somber morning in that very same hall, a little over a week earlier, when hundreds of people gathered there for a memorial service for longtime synagogue member Jack Slomovic.

Slomovic was a Holocaust survivor who went from the horror of the Shoah to the glory of fighting in Israel’s War of Independence. Eventually, he made his way to California and became a major philanthropist in our community, with a special place in his heart for Israel and Jewish education.

At his memorial, one speaker after another described Slomovic’s lifelong passion for helping young Jews stay connected to their faith and to one another.

If there are eyes in heaven, I have little doubt Jack Slomovic was looking down at the joyful scene on Friday night and ­smiling.