One Congregation’s Sabbath Initiative: Making Shabbat Essential
by Connie Dufner
The charge was straightforward: Transform the Sabbath culture at Temple Emanu-El Dallas. Why now? Our clergy, staff and lay leadership were concerned. They saw rising stress and tension among congregants who – because of life stage or economic pressures or work demands – were bursting at the seams with a kind of destructive busy-ness. They also detected quite the opposite in our aging congregation: Increasingly, members were becoming alienated not by choice but by circumstance, isolated from a source of great comfort and community – if only they could access it.
The solution, our clergy deeply felt, lay in the renewable gift and commandment that is Sabbath. We already have a mechanism for turning off the world and turning inward, for reflection and purpose and connection – if only we would access it.
So a small group was convened – four lay leaders of different ages, including myself, two rabbis and a staff member. We met once a month for a year, culminating in a temple-wide workshop on engaging in one-on-one conversations about what’s important in our lives. After a summer break, we are reconvening as a “Sabbath think tank” and will begin a year of studying “The Sabbath” by Abraham Joshua Heschel. This builds upon year one’s reading of “Sabbath” by Wayne Muller. (When we finished reading, we handed our copies out at a board meeting and asked trustees to “read it forward” and pass along to others.)
During the course of this thoughtful year, we have often asked ourselves – what did we achieve? Programmatically, a lot. From the offices, committee meetings, bimah, our “My Shabbat is” Facebook discussion group, message M&Ms passed out at the Board meeting, our kitchens, and our private, reflective spaces, the message of Shabbat was unmistakable, and so was the pulse of our community. We learned, celebrated, preached, planned, and prayed. This fall, a congregational kallah will explore the theme of Shabbat, and the temple’s focus statement, approved last winter – upon which we base our governance priorities – prominently features the Sabbath.
We have come so far at increasing awareness and creating opportunities for celebration. Yet when we are honest with ourselves, we realize that in some ways, these are only baby steps. We have clearly brought the message of Shabbat as a programming and reflective anchor in the week, but true Sabbath continues to elude many of us.
I’m sure there are plenty who would disagree with me, as they bake challah and welcome friends on Friday nights, greet one another at services, or head to the gym or their kids’ soccer games on Saturday. After all, the paths to spirituality are different for all of us. We don’t need (fill in the blank) to feel Sabbath. Congregants find it in routines that are meaningful to them; they find Sabbath whether or not it is recognizably Jewish. This can be difficult to accept for those of us in the business, whether professionals or lay leaders. Because for many – and often for those of us who are closest to the search – something is deeply and surely missing.
During the course of our group’s year together, our experiences mirrored those of the busy congregants we are trying to reach. One of our rabbis became a father; one lay leader changed jobs; another lay leader’s workload nearly doubled; a third lay leader celebrated his triplets’ b’nai mitzvah and dealt with neck surgery. Life threw challenges at us that reminded us why we need Sabbath.
One of the most profound statements I’ve experienced during our time together came from Rabbi Debra Robbins, who mused aloud, “What would it look like if our congregation was an oasis of calm and peace on Shabbat?” I think about that often – how can our building and our leaders reflect Sabbath back into the congregation just by being intentional? One week it might be joining the congregation for Share Shabbat and rejoicing in one another’s homes. The next week you might add on Friday night services before you head to dinner with friends, and in a few more weeks, perhaps you phase out your afternoon of errands on Saturday afternoon to read or take a nap.
One of the clever tools of our highly successful Share Shabbat program in the fall was a “cell phone sleeping bag” given to each participating family. Turn it off, tuck it away and voila – noisy distractions symbolically fade. We all know that it’s not that easy. The freedom to choose how we practice is embedded in our Reform Jewish DNA. But so is something else – the noodge gene. That’s ultimately how I see the work of the Sabbath Initiative – not to plan and evaluate programs, but to push and question and search. Sabbath arrives every week with a fresh new opportunity for changing our experience of it. The more we embrace it ourselves and lead others to do so in both traditional and new ways, the more essential and unforgettable it becomes.
Connie Dufner is a member of Temple Emanu-El Dallas and longtime lay leader. She is one of the leaders of The Sabbath Initiative and a member of the Board of Trustees.