They’re Shown It, But Can They Own It?

[The below essay originally appeared in The Peoplehood Papers, Volume 8 – Nurturing Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century – What Should We Do Differently? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

In the past 13 years, more than 300,000 young Jews – almost 200,000 from the United States alone – have experienced a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. As the website says, “The trip aims to … build an understanding, friendship and lasting bond with the land and people of Israel; and to reinforce the solidarity of the Jewish people worldwide.” It is an apt “operational” definition of Jewish peoplehood.

The words signal the issues of concern that motivated the project in the first place: a lack of knowledge about Jewish history, religion, and tradition; a dearth of personal Jewish experiences, and little (or more often no) exposure to the land and people of Israel and Jews worldwide. These issues are byproducts of longstanding social and cultural trends that have been the fodder for numerous articles about Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people. The 10-day stint in Israel is meant to address those issues by providing a personal encounter with the land and the lore, and perhaps most profoundly, the Jewish people.

The awareness that one is part of something larger, something global and timeless, is what marks the beginning of what we might call peoplehood. But for one to feel a part of a people, one must first recognize themselves within a people. Trip-goers are shown it, but can they own it?

One thing that happens on a Birthright trip – and often for the first time – is the realization that Judaism is more than a religion. Time and again we have seen that realization slowly to sink in. We can almost read the internal dialog:

“I’ve never seen so many Jews in one place before. It makes me feel proud, but I’m also confused. Here, being Jewish seems to mean something different for everyone. How come I feel so comfortable (or uncomfortable)?
I want to know more…”

Those on the trip and those they encounter may define their Jewish identity in ethnic or nationalistic terms, or in different terms altogether. This can be a difficult thing for young Diaspora Jews to grasp, but it can also be a fascinating thing to explore. Judaism is revealed as the complex, living, evolving entity that it is. And in the process of exploring, Birthright participants emerge with more questions than ever about what the Jewish part of them is and how it ultimately will – or should – guide their actions and choices.

Our challenge, then, is not to assign or assume Jewishness, or a sense of peoplehood. Our job is to help these young Jews make sense of their new questions, and understand their Jewishness in the context of all of their other identities. In that process, peoplehood becomes something larger – the result of connecting to something that is at the same time common across people and deeply profound personally.

What can we do to ignite the process of personal discovery? How can we interest young Jewish adults to explore Judaism’s depths and meaning in their own lives? We believe the answer lies in providing opportunities for ownership of Jewish living and learning experiences. This is what peoplehood-building looks like in the 21st century.

At NEXT, we take the spark ignited on a Birthright Israel trip and work with partners to fan it into a fire. We use choice and ownership as our guide, connecting young Jews to myriad events and opportunities that appeal to their individual interests and inclinations. But we are also cognizant of the fact that organized Jewish activities are not for everyone. For some, finding meaning and making community is not a function of attending organized activities run by others but happens rather within a circle of friends, at home.

That insight galvanized NEXT to develop a do-it-yourself approach to holidays, Shabbat, and community-building that enables young Jews to create authentic Jewish experiences on their own terms. We also provide all of the resources and funding necessary to help them along the way. More than 20 young Jews have received support to fund their own community projects through Natan/NEXT Grants for Social Entrepreneurs. Over 6,400 Birthright alumni have hosted 16,000 Shabbat and holiday meals through NEXT Shabbat and Holiday grant programs. With an average of 10 people at the typical Shabbat meal or seder powered by NEXT micro-grants and educational material, we now know that this approach truly resonates with Birthright alums and their peers.

In looking at the words of young Jews who hosted Passover seders this year through our holiday grant program, we begin to see the true impact of owning a Jewish experience:

“Inclusivity and education are two of the most important values that I associate with Passover and the seder tradition. I wanted to host a seder to share these values with many friends of mine who had never attended a seder and had very little knowledge of Passover. For my Jewish friends, it was a great opportunity to discuss the different traditions we had grown up with and reconnect with our roots.” – Sam, New Orleans, LA

For others, owning these experiences allows them to create Jewish experiences in places where they cannot be found:

“Hosting a seder is a great way for me to connect with my heritage and celebrate the traditions that I grew up with. Going to school and living in Hawaii, I am physically isolated from my relatives back on the mainland. In Hawaii, my close friends are my family and I am more than happy to share my traditions with them.” – Matthew, Honolulu, HI

In these words, we start to see the things that connect one to a people – seeing one’s values reflected in a holiday, reconnecting with roots, and finding psychic comfort in sharing traditions despite physical separation.

At the same time, by providing ways for young Jews to own their journeys and experiences, we instinctively do something different that is profound in itself. We create spaces and opportunities where they aren’t asked to check their complexity at the door. Within these spaces, they are able to explore who they are as a Jew and as a person, and make their own determinations about what constitutes a meaningful experience.

This has ramifications for the larger conversation. Emphasizing Jewish “peoplehood” is not enough. For a large and growing share of the young Jewish population in the Diaspora, a sense of being part of the Jewish people occurs among peers and in a community that values authenticity, learning and debate, and interaction with the outside world. That’s when real ownership happens.

How such communities can be built, nurtured, and replicated is the question to which the peoplehood conversation must turn.

Morlie Levin is the CEO of NEXT, a division of Birthright Israel Foundation.

From Birth-right to Birth-responsibility

by Emily Comisar

Of all of the questions that I hear about Taglit-Birthright Israel, one that comes up over and over again is that of how we get trip participants to view their experience as a gift to be paid forward instead of simply a right to which they are entitled. Paying it forward isn’t restricted to donating that $250 deposit back to the organization; it also means feeling a sense of responsibility to the community, to engage in it in whichever way is most meaningful and make it a more welcoming place for a rising generation of young Jewish adults.

Two weeks ago, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies (Brandeis University), and NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation convened a group of 25 young professionals to talk about Taglit-Birthright Israel. Being on staff at NEXT, I was of course keenly interested in conversations about how we engage trip returnees once they land back on U.S. soil – emotionally exhausted, intellectually challenged and inevitably glowing.

On the second day of the gathering, as we grappled with that question of entitlement and responsibility, a few important words floated to the surface over and over again:

  1. Word Cloud

    Word cloud from the Birth-right to Birth-responsibility discussion

    Transparency: the need to be clear with participants up front about the goals of the trip.

  2. Reflection: understanding that each participant is on a unique Jewish journey and that Taglit-Birthright Israel will play a different role in each of their lives, that they will unpack what they learn about themselves on the trip in different ways, and that’s OK.
  3. Ownership: decreasing the amount of hand-holding on the trip and giving participants a sense of ownership over the experience.

To be transparent and to create a space for reflection is one thing, but how do we encourage participants to take ownership over an experience that has been planned for them down to the minute by people they have never met?

We can let them facilitate conversations, organize an oneg or lead a text study, but the meat of any sort of ownership experience comes down to this: feeling needed. Instead of asking, how do we get them to donate, how do we get them to invite people, how do we get them in the door, let’s ask: How do we make them feel needed? How do we make them feel necessary?

I know, I know, this is easier said than done. The reality of working in the nonprofit sector is that we report quantitatively. We talk to our funders and stakeholders about how many people we’ve reached. Even if we aren’t experiencing explicit pressure from our senior staff and boards to put butts in seats, we can’t help but put that pressure on ourselves.

But here’s the thing: I’d be willing to bet that the majority of people who get into this line of work didn’t do it because they like sales. We do it because we care about what the Jewish world looks like now and what it will look like 20 years from now. It’s a question of long-term thinking and strategy. The number of people in the door is no doubt a valuable short-term indicator to use alongside qualitative feedback that we’re getting on our work, but the problem with relying on it is that our audiences can see right through it.

It doesn’t take a social researcher to tell us that young Jewish adults (or humans in general) want to be counted as more than simply a butt in a seat or a body in the door.

Let’s stop working so hard to be event planners and start being relationship builders. Maybe we can build a stronger community if, instead of counting heads, we tap into the entire person, figure out which of their talents and skills are necessary to make things happen, and let them know that they are the only ones who can do it.

Emily Comisar is Manager of National Projects for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. This piece  is cross-posted on the Schusterman Networks blog and eJewishPhilanthropy.

Creating Worthwhile Programming

by Heather Wolfson

An asset map of enriching programming areas from the Southwest NEXTWork Launch. Click to enlarge.

During the Southwest NEXTwork Launch a question about programming caught my eye. Specifically, what types of programs can we, as engagement professionals, create for young Jewish adults that are not only engaging, but also worth people’s time? I believe it means developing relevant and authentic events. Here’s how:

1. Consult with participants. Don’t hesitate to conduct an informal focus group of your participants to find out what they want.

2. Develop goals and objectives. Before developing the program out, go into it with clear ideas of what you want people to get out of the program.

3. Get buy-in from key participants. Have some of your participants been clamoring for a specific type of event? Is this program someone’s idea? Don’t do it all yourself — involve participants throughout the process.

4. Think outside the box. Get as creative as possible. Consider the content, venue, food, presenters, entertainment…etc.

5. Present meaningful content. Participants should walk away with a new nugget of knowledge.

6. Set the mood. The tone of the program is really important. Fostering a warm and welcoming environment is critical. Have greeters at the door, floaters to connect with new people and always do a short ice breaker (clearly dependent on number of people in attendance).

7. Create action. What is one thing people can do when they go home? Think about how this program can be relevant beyond the program itself.

8. Plan for follow-up. Before the program begins, know how you want to follow up with everyone in attendance, more than just a thank you. Provide participants with links to other programs of interest, educational resources or anything else that may have come out of your program.

 

Heather Wolfson is the Western Regional Director for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.

 

Put On Your Shoes

by Liz Fisher

Liz Fisher and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

Liz Fisher studies with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

As parents of school age kids, we’ve mostly made the shift from being woken up to waking the kids up. But waking the kids up each morning is only part of the job. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that the four most common words I say every morning are “put your shoes on”. My kids aren’t so hard to wake up, and they pretty much get through the eating breakfast, brushing teeth routine on their own, but the shoes? Every single morning. “Put. Your. Shoes. On”. Over and over and over again.

This weekend is the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, and there is a cool campaign amongst a group of rabbis and others to get the #Torah hashtag to the top of the most popular list. So there has been a lot of tweeting Torah today, and I am enjoying the 140 character at a time learning.

This morning, Rabbi Sari Laufer (@RabbiLaufer) tweeted: “Midrash: The night before receiving the #Torah, the children of Israel slept all of that night,& Moshe had to rouse them to receive #Torah.”

I’ve been thinking about that rousing, what it meant at Sinai and what it means in our generation. Yesterday I had the extraordinary privilege of learning with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. At one point, he was asked about the generation gap. His response: for hundreds of generations, from Sinai to today, parents have had to teach their children that this (Torah, community, Judaism) is relevant and meaningful.

For hundreds of generations, we have had to wake our kids up. Yesterday’s learning was part of a conversation convened by the Schusterman Philanthropic Network, The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, and our team at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. We were there to hear from Birthrighters themselves and their peers – innovators and entrepreneurs throughout the Jewish community who are helping us think about how to think about Birthright, the gift of a free 10 day trip to Israel, and the days, months, and years that follow that trip.

In many ways, for many participants, Birthright Israel is that waking up, the rousing to receive Torah – in the most broad sense of the word. And it does a pretty good job of that.

But Birthright Israel doesn’t make breakfast. It doesn’t remind you to pack your backpack. It doesn’t nag you to put on your shoes. And it doesn’t do what is my ultimate goal with my kids – get you to the point where you do all these things on your own because it just makes sense to you.

That job – the backpacks, the shoes, the understanding of relevance and applicability, that’s up to the rest of us. I’m honored to work with a group of people who think about this everyday. But we can’t think of it alone. Whatever your background, whatever your religion (or lack thereof), it is our role to pass our values on to the next generation. How are we doing that? And what are they passing up to us? And how do we all get to a place where we don’t need to be reminded to put our shoes on?

 

Liz Fisher is the Managing Director for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. Find her on twitter at @Liz_Fisher. The photo of Liz and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg was taken by @TheChaviva.

Who Do We Serve: A Blog Series

by Bennie Cohen

On May 8, 2012, 25 professionals gathered in Atlanta for our Southeast NEXTwork Launch. The NEXTwork is our growing network of professionals engaging Jewish young adults in their local communities, and at this Launch, we endeavored to create a forum where they could share best practices, make connections, and probe deeper into challenges we face as a field.

One of our sessions, titled “Who Do We Serve?”, helped us to uncover our Jewish young adult audience–their demographics, personalities, traits, and inclinations. With the help of a scribe, we created a visual representation of our discussion (check out the image below) that emphasized the themes of our discussion: authenticity, Jewish young adults’ needs, feelings of acceptance, the stigma of “not being Jewish enough,” and volunteering (to name a few). Rafi Samuels-Schwartz, NEXT’s Northeast regional director, has already written a post about this fascinating topic, and it has left us wanting more. At the end of his post, he poses several important questions:

“Consider it – Has your organization taken the time recently to ask itself “who do we serve?” If so, how has your organization changed as a result of that question? If not, perhaps it’s time to clearly define, or redefine, your audience. Are they who you think they are? Have they changed? Has your organization?”

As Jewish organizations who seek to involve young adults in our community, we must always remember the people we are trying to serve.  We need this reality check, because often, we want so much for young adults to buy into our missions that we forget to to do our homework on this demographic.

In looking at the complexity of the themes that emerged from this conversation, we feel that Rafi’s post serves as a great prompt for future posts on this topic. In the coming weeks, we’ll publish several posts as part of a Who Do We Serve? series. We invite you to join the conversation, and add comments and anecdotes along the way when you see themes that resonate with you.

Our next post will focus on the needs of Jewish young adults, so stay tuned.

Bennie Cohen is the Southeast Regional Director for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @whosyourbennie.

Who Do We Serve?: From North to South

by Rafi Samuels-Schwartz

Perhaps the single most prevalent misunderstanding to come out over thirteen years of Taglit-Birthright Israel trips is the idea that there is a single “Birthright alumni” profile in which all the nearly 300,000 participants nicely fit. In 2012, past-participants of Taglit-Birthright Israel trips are, in some cases, approaching their upper 30’s, live in every state, and occupy a wide spectrum of religious practices, demographic categories, and economic strata. The successes of the Taglit-Birthright Israel trip are due, in part, to the Trip’s capacity to offer meaning and personal relevance to this wildly mixed multitude of participants. Unfortunately, these participants are oftentimes lumped into a single category – “Alumni” – the moment they return home exhausted and electrified from their 10 day experience. While this may be a convenient classification, it’s not necessarily an accurate one. We must ask ourselves: What is a Taglit-Birthright Israel participant? What does this participant look like? Do they look like that everywhere?

With these questions in mind, I recently participated in an eye-opening exercise at NEXT’s Southeast Regional NEXTWork convening. Entitled “Who Do We Serve?,” this workshop encouraged the room of young-adult program professionals from a number of different organizations – many of which often have overlapping, but decidedly non-identical, audiences – to name the attributes, hobbies, interests, and characteristics of the audiences they serve. What emerged was a patchwork “profile,” oftentimes incomplete and even contradictory, of a “typical” Young Jewish adult in the Southeast United States.

 

Graphic Notes, Who Do We Serve?

Graphic notes, click to enlarge!

As Northeast Regional Director of NEXT, I focus on opportunities and communities decidedly above the Mason-Dixon line. And so, I was fascinated to hear how this room full of Jewish professionals from across Georgia saw the people they were aiming to serve. Some of it seemed universal; a returning trip participant in Hoboken craves the same authenticity in their Jewish life as one in Makon, GA. Other times, attributes felt distinctly regional; the centrality of multi-generational family roots in Georgia would likely be out of place in the oftentimes hyper-transient Northeast.

Ultimately, the importance of the exercise seemed less to do with the eventual “profile” that emerged. Instead, it seemed to have more to do with creating a space and opportunity for those present to balance their assumptions about the Young Adult population they serve against those of their fellow professionals. Because, as it turned out (unsurprisingly, in hindsight) there was no single “profile” to define. Rather, the room was left considering the things that made their participants and their communities different. And, more importantly – similar.

All too often, it seems, in their eagerness to get out and do something, organizations leapfrog over the important process of honing in on the “who” for which that something is intended. Consider it – Has your organization taken the time recently to ask itself “who do we serve?” If so, how has your organization changed as a result of that question? If not, perhaps it’s time to clearly define, or redefine, your audience. Are they who you think they are? Have they changed? Has your organization?

I encourage you all to share how you have gone about asking the all-important question of “Who Do We Serve?” at your organizations. After all, without the “who”, the “what” might not matter at all.

 

Rafi is the Northeast Regional Director for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.  Follow him on twitter at @NEXTRafi.

Tips from the NEXTwork: How do I Engage the Totally Uninterested?

By Yoni Sarason

A couple of weeks ago, 50 young adult engagement professionals gathered in Long Beach, California for the first-ever NEXTwork Launch. In a day full of training, networking, and best practice-sharing, attendees had the unique opportunity to spread their wealth of knowledge in an asset mapping activity.

What does asset mapping look like? Check out the photo to the right. Each participant expressed an issue with which they are grappling in order to encourage their peers to lend their expertise. Rebecca Halpin, a former NEXT fellow currently working at IKAR, a spiritual community in Los Angeles, CA,  asked the question, “How do I engage the totally uninterested?” She clarified further: “Someone who would never step foot in a synagogue or go to a Jewish event.”

The question is a big one, and reaches to one of the core tensions of living in a country that provides us with so much freedom and so many options. To begin to answer her question, it is worth framing the reality that organizations, particularly Jewish non-profits, must decide who they want to reach in order to have the focus to achieve that reach. We must decide if we are trying to deepen experiences for those already bought into our mission, or organization, or if we are going to try to reach those who haven’t yet stepped through our doors.

If we follow the first path, then we should take the advice of the participant who responded to the question succinctly, “Don’t bother!”  To elaborate:  If you are doing something well, and the people who come really like it, don’t burn yourself out worrying about everyone else.

If we decide, however, that our goal is to connect to those not already a part of our initiative, we should probably stop using terms like unaffiliated, or unengaged.  Instead, we need to do something a bit different.  The first is to identify more specifically who we are trying to reach, and this is known as market segmentation.  Are you looking for recently transplanted individuals who don’t know where to turn, or might have tried something and were turned off?  Or are you after people who have created their own personal groups and communities and currently don’t find value in your offering?

One of the best places to start, as noted on the asset map, is to, “find out what they are interested in.”  Whether or not it turns out that individuals are interested in your particular offerings, this information is actionable.  It allows you to identify if you have an existing offering the individual simply doesn’t know about (suggesting a marketing issue), if you aren’t offering things individuals want (a content issue), or if your institution is simply on a different planet from the individual (a vision issue).

So how do you get this critical information?  NEXT believes one answer is one-on-one personal engagement. If you make yourself available as a contact for people who are new to your city or looking to learn more about the community, and take the time to hear their stories, you will learn a great deal.  Learn from insurance salespeople. Oftentimes, they also don’t know who to talk to, so they start with who they already know, and ask for referrals.  At the end of every conversation, ask, “Do you know anyone else who might have an interesting perspective on X,” or “Can you recommend a friend who is Jewish but doesn’t come to ‘Jewish’ events?”  As people hear that you are willing to actually sit down with them and hear their story, don’t be surprised if you start getting unsolicited calls.

Concurrently, another good piece of advice from the asset map is to “have regulars bring a friend.” Young adults often do things because it is where their current friends are, or where their potential friends may be.  Your current participants can be your greatest asset in promoting your events.  You just have to ask.

As an epilogue, a lot of the other responses to Rebecca’s question revolved around low-barrier programming, and most of the advice was to take the Jewish content out entirely.  While this may be a great starting place for organizations whose primary goal is to engage young adults, it may not be a great approach for an organization focused on spirituality and Jewish learning.  Instead,  I would advise that such organizations continue to do what they do best–create great Jewish spiritual experiences–and ask those who appreciate it to share it with their friends and networks.

Yoni Sarason is the Midwest Regional Director at NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation

Making the Most of Our Minutes

By Shelby Zitelman

No, I am not talking about my cell phone’s rollover plan. Although is there even a need for cell phone minutes if we can all use skype on our smart phones? Alas, I digress… What I would like to discuss in the 7 paragraphs herein is how to make the most of your time with volunteers.

Since 2007, PresenTense has been working with creative, inspired individuals from international Jewish communities to effect social change. Whether hosting a parlor meeting, starting or supporting a new community-focused venture or writing for the (currently discontinued) PresenTense magazine, PresenTense has offered the opportunity for Jews from all backgrounds, perspectives and stages of life to impact their Jewish Community by responding to the calling ““how can I make my community a better place in the 21st century?”

Over the past 5 years PresenTense has refined our Fellowship program, the program for which we are now known, and has worked with 285 entrepreneurs (Fellows) and almost 1,000 volunteers to launch 149 ventures, and another 120 ventures in 2011 alone. PresenTense Fellows are the visionaries, and commit at least 6 months to develop a new community-changing initiative.

>>Check here for a complete list of PresenTense Fellows and their projects.

But the PresenTense volunteers are the secret sauce of our Fellowship program, and are crucial to the success of the Fellows. Our volunteers donate countless hours as steering committee members, coaches and mentors, offering their professional experiences, insights and time to build the Fellowship and directly support the Fellows.

So what is the method we’ve used to successfully recruit and motivate our participants and volunteers? We believe there are three key elements:

  • An open-ended calling,
  • Multiple points of meaningful engagement, and
  • Structured work-plans, tasks and deadlines.

1. The Open-Ended Calling

Are you passionate about the environment? Education? Arts and culture? Hunger and Poverty Relief? Cross-cultural connections? Israel?

The question “how can I make my community a better place in the 21st century?” provokes an answer from anyone who has a stake. Instead of defining the issue, we let our volunteers connect to the question. Often people say, “I’m not sure how I want to get involved, but I know that I want to volunteer with your organization”. This leads me to the next point:

2. Multiple Points of Meaningful Engagement.

Do you have a vision? A network to share? Insights to offer? 2 hours a month to recruit/promote/plan?

The PresenTense platform has created multiple points of entry for individuals to participate in the way that works for them. Our program is designed to let anyone get involved if they are willing to give a bit of time. Our volunteers help with website management, blog posts, and press releases. They recruit, interview and admit our entrepreneurs. Our volunteers donate pro-bono hours of legal, marketing and accounting advice, listen to our entrepreneurs’ business presentations, plan events and represent our programs. There are a lot of moving pieces to our programs, which is why it is so important to have a process and method for overseeing our volunteers. Which leads me to point #3:

3. Structured work-plans, tasks and deadlines

We hold our volunteers accountable. Often volunteer managers do not want to “over burden” or call upon their volunteers to roll up their sleeves. But volunteers have the option to spend their time elsewhere, so by not giving them meaningful, guided work we would be denying them their opportunity to give back. So PresenTense makes sure that the volunteers’ work is structured, with understandable deliverables and due dates. It is our job to empower our volunteers to take ownership over their work, checking in and guiding as necessary detailed work-plans, calendars, suggested meeting agendas and intranets.

PresenTense would not be sustainable without commitment of our volunteers. We recently launched a campaign called the “million minutes campaign”, recognizing the amazing contributions our volunteers have given to international Jewish communities. Because PresenTense believes that communal change requires an eco-system of support and needs to be guided and managed to reach its maximum potential.

Shelby Zitelman is the North American Program Director for PresenTense.

 

Photo by backpackphotography, licensed under Creative Commons.

Shabbat Conversations: A Case Study in Modeling Ritual

by Heather Wolfson

About two years ago I hosted a NEXT Shabbat* in my home for a small group of Birthright Israel alumni. For me, it was about creating a space for alumni to connect, bring a friend or loved one, and enjoy a delicious meal together. (Yes, I cooked everything!) To my surprise this night turned out to be so much more.

One of the alumni brought his girlfriend (now wife) to Shabbat. He had just returned from his Birthright Israel trip about two months before and wanted to get connected to the community, despite a rigorous work and school schedule. Although she was quiet, his girlfriend (we’ll call her Kim) was excited to tell us that this would be her first Shabbat meal.

As a group, we gathered around the candlestick and all the women lit them together, with the help of the beautiful Shabbox. My husband chanted the kiddush and together we all said ha’motzi.

Alright, that was a traditional Shabbat in our home, but what came next was most inspiring. Sitting around the table with the rest of our guests Kim posed the question, “What did you all do for Shabbat with your families?”

From one end of the table, a friend explained that Shabbat in her home was just a meal on Friday night with the whole family. Although she knew it was Shabbat, it was the only time during the week that her entire family could be together. Another friend shared that he never really practiced Shabbat at home growing up, but really started to do so in college with his roommates. To them it was an excuse to power down after a long week of classes and just enjoy each other’s company.

I shared that in my family we would have Shabbat from time to time and what I loved the most about our Shabbat meals was that as my sister, brother and I got older and started to learn more through religious school, camp and youth group (USY), our meals changed. We often sang, taught our parents new songs, and reminisced about our friends.

One of our guests even laughed about the fact that his parents were really strict when he was in high school and he missed every high school football game because they wanted him home for Shabbat. Although it bothered him at the time, he now sees the value in having been home with his family.

Kim took it all in and asked: “so what about now?”

Many of us at the table felt that Shabbat was a time to recharge, reflect and renew. It was a time for us to slow down and just enjoy good company (friends, family…whoever might be at the table). Some admitted that Shabbat was not a weekly practice, for a variety of reasons, but wished that they could do it more regularly.

Then I shared that Shabbat is about creating a space and doing it your own way. Shabbat could be whatever you want it to be–of course I plugged the NEXT Shabbat program, but I also challenged everyone at the table to find a moment during each Shabbat that is sacred. It didn’t have to be a meal, it didn’t even have to be something longer than two minutes, but a moment to recharge.

As professionals, Shabbat is a time that we can model ritual. We can help bring Shabbat into people’s lives. Use NEXT Shabbat as your guide!

*NEXT Shabbat is a program of NEXT: A Division of the Birthright Israel Foundation. NEXT Shabbat enables Birthright Israel alumni to host Shabbat meals in their home and NEXT helps provide the resources. As the Western Regional Director for NEXT, I at times host meals for alumni. Find more information about NEXT Shabbat here.

Heather Wolfson is the Western Regional Director for NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation.