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.

NEXT’s National Opportunities

Our tools are yours to use as you reach out and engage with Birthright Israel trip alumni in your community.

  • Give the Birthright Alumni members of your cohort the tools to do Shabbat their own way with NEXT Shabbat.
  • Check out and share our compilation of Holiday Resource Guides to demystify the Jewish Holidays.
  • Empower Birthright Alumni to take back Passover with Passover Seder Grants.