This past Friday, I had a three-Shabbat day. In the morning, I participated in a Zoom Shabbat with about 70 folks from Haifa and Boston. In the late afternoon, I Zoom-ed in on a Shabbat call with a dozen elderly residents of my mother’s senior living community, many of whom participated on their telephones, lacking screen capabilities. In the early evening, my husband and I “gathered” virtually with our two daughters and son-in-law for an intimate family Kabbalat Shabbat.
And this is the tip of the iceberg: The CJP Boston-Haifa Connection gathering is now a weekly recurring event; in addition, I have been part of other Kabbalat Shabbat with Harvard Kennedy School Israeli Wexner fellows and MIT Israeli Sloan students, as well as a national Israeli American Council “gathering.” Last Saturday morning, I even experienced a Zoom Shabbat “conflict” as I needed to choose between “attending” a rabbi friend’s dvar Torah and participating in my own synagogue’s service.
What is it about this resurgence of Shabbat in the virtual pandemic setting? In a way, it should come as no surprise. Welcoming Shabbat with others is a way of creating a sense of community in a time when we are all desperately seeking human interaction outside the four walls of our own isolated homes. Many of us have warm feelings and happy memories of past Shabbat experiences, regardless of our level of observance. Indeed, at one of my virtual Shabbats, each of us Israelis and Americans was asked to share a memory of Shabbats past. It was such a powerful and meaningful exercise that allowed us to listen, learn and be heard.
Another reason for the current proliferation of Shabbat is that it’s actually easier for people to get together, so to speak. I don’t know about you, but in our normal lives, finding a date on the calendar for multiple friends to gather for Shabbat was a challenge in our overly scheduled lives. Now, no problem!
Many have said that in our current “new normal” they have trouble remembering the day of the week. Is it Monday or Tuesday? Wednesday or Friday? All the days can feel like a permanent weekend. Here again is the beauty of Shabbat, as the great distinguisher between the work week and the sanctified day of rest. It’s not like the other days.
When you light Shabbat candies, drink a little wine and eat even somewhat stale challah, you feel you have entered into a special realm of time. Friday night is different, and even when we mark it at 9:30 a.m. in Boston when it’s 4:30 p.m. in Haifa, we know we are all approaching the cocoon that is Shabbat. For those of us who are still employed, it reminds us that it’s psychologically imperative to maintain boundaries between work and leisure, particularly when our dining-room tables have become our desks.
There is a wonderful saying that has stood the test of time: “More than Israel has preserved the Shabbat, the Shabbat has preserved Israel.” Perhaps we should add an addendum: “Just as the Shabbat has preserved Israel, Zoom is now preserving Shabbat.” Of course, I say this somewhat jokingly, but when we try to imagine life beyond social distancing, what positive elements will endure?
Connecting globally to welcome Shabbat will hopefully be one of them, as well as gathering virtually with friends and family who ordinarily can’t seem to make the time. The phone company used to have a marketing campaign called “Reach Out and Touch Someone.” I never quite understood how you could touch someone through the phone. Zoom will never replace physical interaction, but neither should its power to connect us be discounted. And neither should the power of Shabbat to connect be underestimated.
If you have yet to experience a Zoom Shabbat, try it with your own synagogue community or with any other synagogue community, all of whom have “opened their doors” to welcome everyone, or make up your own! A friend who participated in a recent candle-lighting (and who is not the synagogue-joining type) told me it was the first time he felt that the ritual of lighting Shabbat candles could give him a sense of the Jewish connection he felt he was lacking. It’s such a small and simple gesture, but with so much cultural, historic and personal significance.
The sky is the limit, as they say! Be creative and reach out locally or globally to build simple but powerful new opportunities for growth, connection and Jewish continuity.
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