Plugging in Differently on Shabbat

As we enter the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah and hope for peace, I’m reminded of a Union for Reform Judaism blog post of a few weeks ago, Our Plugged in Shabbat. In the piece, the author, Rabbi Victor Appell, a Hebrew Union College-trained rabbi (the rabbinical school of the Reform movement) and the URJ’s Congregational Marketing Director, discussed how feeble Shabbat had started to feel for his family (rabbi, life partner, and two adopted school-age kids.) The problem? Too many sports practices and games, friend visits, and other extra-curricular activities scheduled on Fridays and Saturdays. The solution? Let his school-age kids watch TV and play video games only on Shabbat.

Ouch. How do you even begin to unpack that? The rabbi says his family feeels happier now on Shabbat, but is that because Shabbat feels more like Shabbat, or because Shabbat has been completely beaten into submission?

Reading the post (and please do!), it’s clear the problem is not Shabbat–it’s the many activities scheduled over Shabbat for the rabbi and his family. If you’re feeling that you’re missing Shabbat and that your family is as well (must I really write, “and you’re a rabbi”?), wouldn’t you try to instill a little bit more of, frankly, Shabbat into Shabbat?

How about uncrowding the weekend? Taking a pass of some of those extra-curricular activities? Making quiet time to bond with each other and your Jewish heritage just little bit more from sundown Friday through sundown Saturday? If your family weekend Shabbat is too plugged in already, why not unplug it and see what happens?

Of course Rabbi Appell’s solution makes his kids feel happy on Shabbat. Force your kids to turn off their TVs and Xboxes all week and only let them take them out on Shabbat and I guarantee they’ll look forward to Shabbat too. But I’ll also guarantee you they sure won’t be looking forward to Shabbat because it’s the Jewish Sabbath.

Kids whine. Sports coaches complain. Sometimes there’s just too much to do in one day or one weekend. We can’t do everything we want to. Sometimes we have to let some things go. That’s the way that life is. We do the best we can, make the best decisions we know how to make, and hope they work out well, and keep moving forward.

As Jews, we make those decisions informed by God, tradition, and Jewish values proven by polishing against daily life over more than 3,000 years. Given that, I would be lying if I didn’t say I find it heartbreaking for anyone looking to increase their family’s sense of Shabbat to do that by enabling behavior that makes Shabbat even more secular, more tenuous, and less Jewish.

As a Jew who davens in a Reform synagogue, however, for a Reform rabbi and URJ official to publicly celebrate letting their kids check out even further on Shabbat is something I find embarrassing for the movement. Is completely checking out of a Jewishly-inspired Shabbat really the message the URJ wants to send in this era of a “New Paradigm”? Is this really what new URJ President Rick Jacobs had in mind in all that talk about reinvigorating Reform Judaism and re-engaging with our Jewish youth?

Actually, of course not. I’m happy that Rabbi Appell has peace on Friday and Saturday in his family now. Being together as happy family is wonderful. But stripped of the meaning of the Jewish Sabbath, his solution is not a Jewish one. There are ways to find peace and harmony as a Jewish family on the weekend that don’t throw Shabbat out with the kiddush wine. How I wish Rabbi Appell had chosen a solution like that.

If anyone out there is trying to explore a greater sense of Shabbat with their Jewish families, I ask you to do two things. First, read Rabbi Appel’s post. And then do the opposite. We have a rich and wonderful tradition.  Sometimes the bravest thing we can do is quiet down our lives in order to hear the still, small voice. Neither God–nor Shabbat–was in the fire. May you be brave enough to sit still long enough to find the Jewish inspiration you seek.

Shabbat Shalom.

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