Yom Kippur, Sermon: Thank God it’s Shabbat

Rabbi Julie’s sermon on Yom Kippur, 2023/5784 

The film opens with four palm trees swaying in the wind and a fiddler playing dramatically in the background.   In Palm Desert, California, Roberta Mahler, age 87, is driving her golf cart, her bleached blond hair blowing in the wind, with her black poodle in her lap.  Her wrinkled cheeks smile when she says, “One of my friends said to me, come on, we’re gonna go to Wendy’s for Shabbat.  I said (incredulously), Wendy’s Shabbat?  I couldn’t believe this.”

In the next scene, Sharon Goodman, age 78 explains the origin of Wendy’s Shabbat while sitting next to her husband in matching recliner chairs.  “We were sitting around the pool on a Friday night with nowhere to go and nothing to do.   And we’re not fancy people, so we figured let’s go down to Wendy’s and we thought about having Shabbat there.  The guys were so embarrassed and against it, you can’t do that, you can’t do that.  And I went up and asked the manager and she said, ‘yes, you certainly can’.”

Now the feature of a documentary film, Wendy’s Shabbat happens every Friday night.  Lou Silberman, age 91 calls Wendy’s at 3pm on Fridays to ask them to set up the table and when the seniors arrive, there’s a long line of little tables pushed together with a hand-written reserved sign.  At each place they set a little white cup with grape juice, a napkin, and a package of silverware wrapped in plastic.  Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, age 97, leads the group in the blessings and after turning on the electric candles, drinking a little grape juice, and having a piece of challah, everyone lines up at the cash register to order their dinner.  For $4, they can get a hamburger, french fries and a drink or chicken nuggets; instead of babka or rugelach they finish Shabbat dinnerl with a Wendy’s frosty.

After everyone carries their plastic tray with their Shabbat dinner wrapped in fast-food paper and cardboard containers back to the table the stories begin.  “It’s a crack up”, Roberta explains.  “They’re just so funny.  You got all these seniors…sometimes you’re listening to all the gossip… it’s a panic.”   Picture one man rolling into Wendy’s with his walker, a woman greeting her friend by patting her on the cheeks with both hands, a wife picking lint off her husband’s jacket before he sits down.  Roberta continues in a more serious tone, “Living by yourself, and having a group like going to Wendy’s, it gives you a feeling of belonging.”[1]   When interviewed by Times of Israel, the founder of Wendy’s Shabbat said, “are you really calling me all the way from Israel!”, and then Sharon said, “we’ve lost friends and gained new people.

What remains constant is the sense of community that is recreated every Friday evening over fast food”.  And Roberta added, “It’s about being part of your Jewish heritage.  It doesn’t matter how you do it.”[2] I couldn’t agree more.

* * *

In Jerusalem this past summer, on a Friday morning in July, I sat in the Beit Midrash, the study hall, surrounded by Jerusalem stone and 180 rabbis to learn at the Hartman Institute with one of my favorite teachers, Melila Hellner Eshed.  “We’re going to study Shabbat”, she said.  “First of all because I love Shabbat.  And also because (pause) these days my heart is very heavy…Shabbat is the only way you can stay sane”.   Melila then shared this story.   Ten years ago, she was at a gathering for Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, ages 15-17.  “It’s an important age, right before they go to the army; they’re hard to reach, but also very open”, she explained.  “We did this exercise where everyone sat in a circle and a few people sat in the middle representing their religions.  Hanging out in the desert with these young people from all over the West Bank and Israel, we decided to ask what each one brings from our religion that is a gift for everybody.  There was a Druze, a Muslim, a Christian, and Melila.

“It was very clear to me”, she said, “that what I was going to bring to the circle was Shabbat.   It was clear to me that Shabbat is what Judaism offers as a gift that can be for everyone.”[3]

* * *

This year at Shomrei, we’re launching a new initiative called, Thank God It’s Shabbat or TGIS.   Our goal is to bring Shabbat into the lives of more Shomrei members in easy and meaningful ways so that Shabbat, on Friday night and Shabbat mornings, becomes a regular habit.    We will be rotating through four Friday nights each month.  The first Friday night is early Shabbat with services beginning at 5:30pm.  Led by Lily Lucey, this engaging intergenerational service, traditionally structured with inviting melodies, will be held at an earlier time to accommodate kids.   Youth participation will be highly encouraged, but all ages are welcome.  On the second Friday night of each month, we will have our Zamru Montclair service.  If you haven’t been to a Zamru service yet, what are you waiting for?   Embrace Shabbat with a joyful and energetic musical service in the round with guitar accompaniment and a circle of 5 prayer leaders singing familiar and new melodies from all around the Jewish world.   We start with wine and nosh and end with a pot-luck dinner.  And make no mistake, kids are welcome to run around, dance, and make noise.

On the third Friday of the month, we will have a Shomrei-style, traditional Kabbalat Shabbat Service starting at 6:30pm.  We’re calling this Shomrei Shabbat to make a play on words since Shomrei is the name of our synagogue and Shomrei Shabbat also means keepers of Shabbat.   On the fourth Friday of each month, we’re encouraging everyone to have Shabbat dinner your way.   Whether you have Shabbat dinner at your own home or someone else’s, with one person or many, make an elaborate meal or order take-out (or go to Wendy’s), there is no one way to celebrate Shabbat.    And on Shabbat mornings we have services, joyful and streamlines (with great sermons), and Tot Shabbat twice a month and a beautiful, delicious Kiddush lunch made by wonderful volunteers.   And you heard it here, on Yom Kippur, from the bimah, you are absolutely invited just to come for Shabbat lunch at noon.

* * *

The Haftorah this morning, taken from the book of Isaiah, is most famous for its passage admonishing us not to fast in an empty and hypocritical way, but rather to fast in a way that inspires us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.   Often we think it stops here, with a focus on helping the downtrodden.  But Isaiah continues, encouraging us not to trample Shabbat by pursuing our everyday affairs on the holiest day of the week.   Rather, Isaiah urges us to call Shabbat a ‘delight,’ oneg, so that we can ‘delight’, titanag, in something that transcends the everyday, something beyond and holy, something that sparkles with connection and joy; he urges us to delight in the Source of life itself, to delight in the Holy One.[4]

Isaiah wasn’t so different from us.  He was a Jew living in the Diaspora trying to make sense of how to live in the world, a world that wasn’t Jewish, that didn’t run on Jewish time, a world where you have to make a living and there are all kinds of attractions and distractions pulling your attention, and you still somehow want to hang onto a Jewish life. A world where you yearn to feel a spark of purpose, meaning, holiness and belonging even in the midst of mayhem and mundane and materialism.   Isaiah says, boil all of Judaism down to community, social justice, and Shabbat.  A Shabbat not focused on rules and restrictions, but a Shabbat experience that you can call – oneg – a delight.

* * *

For Spencer Perdeck, calling Shabbat a delight is part of his day job.  He’s a field worker for OneTable, a national organization founded in 2014 to help young people in their 20’s and 30’s (post-college) gather, open their table to new and old friends, and in their own words “create Shabbat magic” by hosting and guesting at Shabbat dinners across North America.[5]  Spencer was zooming with me from a trendy co-working space in Atlanta, sporting a scruffy beard and these retro Aviator glasses that kinda look like the glasses my father used to wear but somehow way cooler.    Starting with 15 Shabbat dinners in New York City, he explained, OneTable has facilitated 75,000 peer-led Shabbat dinners in more than 25 cities in the United States and Canada impacting close to 200,000 people.   That’s a lot of challah!  OneTable built a technology platform inspired by airbnb that matches guests and hosts.  They offer nourishment credit ($10/guest per Shabbat dinner) and one on one coaching.  That’s where Spencer comes i – he advises new hosts on everything from setting the table, to conversation starters, to vetting guests, to how to say the blessings.  The goal is to make Shabbat dinner accessible and authentic whatever your “Shabbat frequency.”

Spencer also models hosting Shabbat dinner and for him “the creativity is endless”.  For example, at a ‘Shabasana’ dinner, Spencer hosted a candlelight yoga class followed by the blessing and dinner.  And for his recent birthday, Spencer hosted 40 people for a ‘Shabirthday’ where he covered his dining room table with butcher paper and turned the entire space into a charcuterie board with crackers and cheese, figs and dates.  He wanted to convey a sense of “abundance”, he explained.  “That we’re ok, we have everything we need”.  Spencer believes that something magical happens when we gather.   He said,  “here our tradition is giving us permission to unplug, to breathe, to slow down.  It’s like our ancestors were looking out for us so many years ago because we need space to slow down now more than ever.”[6]   If you’ve got kids or grandkids in their 20’s and 30’s, make sure they know about OneTable.  And if you’re 55+, you might want to help us pilot OneTable’s new initiative to bring an authentic and sustainable Shabbat dinner practice, infused with joy – oneg – to Boomers right here in Montclair.

* * *

Ultimately, the most important guest you can invite to Shabbat dinner is Shabbat.   We learn this from the Zohar, the mystical text, that Melila describes as pouring oil and honey on these few words from the Haftorah, v’karata l’Shabbat oneg – and you shall call Shabbat a delight.  You see, Melila explained, in the 13th century, when the Zohar was composed, people were also struggling to make Shabbat a part of their lives.  There were so many details of so many rules about what you couldn’t do and not enough imagination about just how delightful Shabbat could be.  Rabbi Abba opens in the Zohar by saying, “that Shabbat is not only holier than other days, it also encompasses “tranquility from all and joy of all.  For Shabbat is equivalent to the entire Torah”.   Rabbi Abba continues by emphasizing that oneg, refers to all kinds of delight, of body and of soul.   That sitting in the dining room, putting away our phones, having a special dessert, eating our favorite foods, dressing in beautiful clothing, making time for intimacy – all of this is a key part of what makes Shabbat a delight.   And then, the Zohar asks, “what does it mean to call Shabbat?  It means to invite her, to invite Shabbat like you invite a guest to your home”.  The Zohar whispers, “to call Shabbat a delight is to invite Shabbat like a guest to your home, with a table that is set, prepared with food and drink, in a special way – left to your imagination – that is more than on other days.”[7]

* * *

Earlier this summer, a dozen people from Shomrei gathered to brainstorm what this new 4th Friday Shabbat dinner initiative could look like.   In turns out, we were pretty evenly divided between people who grew up with Shabbat dinners every week or at least some of the time and people who never had Shabbat dinners growing up, not at home and in some cases not at anyone else’s house either.   They could name many obstacles to having Shabbat dinner: existing routines, little kids with no patience, working late on Fridays, not having friends who care about Shabbat, living alone, and being tired at the end of the week.  But they also were yearning for something more: quality family and friend time, a shift in mindset, expanded community, momentum, sharing the effort, and space to give thanks for the blessings of the week.

We started our meeting by watching Shabbat at Wendy’s and concluded that whatever we did on these 4th Fridays, it had to be easy and meaningful.  And we’re such a diverse community, with different needs and preferences, we decided that it was important for people to feel empowered to do Shabbat their way, augmented by the connections and resources the committee will provide.  But there were two non-negotiables:  Shabbat has to be invited as a guest to your Shabbat dinner – there has to be something elevated

in the food or company or setting or conversation or rituals that make it special.  And it has to be sustainable because we want you not to just attend an event, but build a practice that helps hosting and/or guesting become a regular part of your Friday night routine.

When committee members were asked how they thought their life might be different with expanded Shabbat dinner experiences, they had a range of answers.  One person wants a little holiday every week; another wants to create memories with family and friends.   Making a home in this community and being part of a thriving and supportive Jewish community were variations on the same theme.  Someone wanted more fluency with the rituals, another wanted to expand his horizons.  One person wanted to get to know new people, another wanted a peaceful and soulful non-technology evening.  Each of them sensed, and some had experienced, the truth of Melila’s words from that circle with the teenagers echoed by one of the greatest modern Hebrew poets, Hayyim Nahman Bialik: “Shabbat is the greatest gift which Judaism has given the world.”[8]   So this year, 5784, we invite you to make Shabbat more a part of your life.   We’re not sure exactly what will happen.  But as one Thank God It’s Shabbat team member said,  I [sure]would like to find out!”        G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah.  May we be sealed for good in the book of life.


[1] The Senior Citizens Who Celebrate Shabbat at Wendy’s (youtube.com)


[3] https://www.hartman.org.il/shabbat-shechinah-and-the-liberal-jew

[4] Isaiah 58:13-14.

[5] www.onetable.org

[6] Rabbi Julie Roth interviewed Spencer Perdeck, September 12, 2023.

[7] Zohar II:47a.

[8] Hayyim Nachman Bialik, Exchange of Letters on Shabbat in the Land of Israel, Tel Aviv, April 9, 1933.


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