Our Plugged-In Shabbat

As in many families, we found that the grip of electronics in the lives of our children was becoming tighter. This was not a good thing. In the mornings, our children would claim that they were not hungry for breakfast so they could watch TV. Invariably, this led to a struggle to get everyone out of the house in time for work and school. When they boys returned home, they dropped their bags and ran straight to the family room to turn on the television. To their credit, our sons are multi-taskers: While watching TV, they would also play with various handheld electronic games. Needless to say, getting them to do their homework or come to dinner was a daily challenge.

Something had to be done. But what? How could we loosen the grip of technology, restore a bit of calm to our household, and get our boys to do their homework? Shabbat to the rescue! We are “religious” about our Erev Shabbat observance. Every Friday, the table is set with our best dishes. My partner, the family cook, prepares a delicious meal. I bring home not one but two loaves of challah from a great New York City bakery. Our children lead the Shabbat blessings. Sometimes the meal is a bit rushed because some combination of us are going to temple or to soccer practice; other times, it is a leisurely and relaxed meal, with no one rushing off and a nice bottle of wine for my partner and me.

Like many families, it can be challenging to make Saturday feel like Shabbat. Sometimes I take our older son to the Shabbat morning minyan at our temple, but the rest of the day is often spent shuttling the children around to play dates and sporting events. How could we make Shabbat, from Friday evening through Saturday evening, feel a bit more special?

My partner and I decided to accomplish two goals – limit the use of electronics during the week and make Shabbat feel more special. During the school week, there would no television or electronic games. Friday afternoon, with the arrival of Shabbat, our sons could watch TV, and we’d return their handheld games to them. To be honest, we were not sure how this would work. We braced ourselves for a revolt and even anticipated that we would cave in to relentless whining and protests.

To our surprise, this did not happen. The boys, while not thrilled with the prospect, put up very little resistance. I wonder if they sensed that electronics were the cause of some of the tension in the house. I even like to imagine that they were happy to have more time to interact with each other, not to mention their parents. Perhaps they saw this not as draconian but as a relief. Now, on Shabbat, the boys are thrilled to watch their favorite programs on TV and to play their video games, though on busy Saturdays, they only have time for TV and electronics in the morning and perhaps in the late afternoon and evening. Their weeks are quite full, and I believe they need – and deserve – some “down time.” We still have plenty of family time.

Next month, we are coming up on the first anniversary of what we feared might be a short-lived experiment. Our weekdays are much calmer. We are able to get out of the house in the morning with greater ease and there is much less drama over homework in the afternoons. And now our boys associate Shabbat with something they enjoy. I appreciate that for many families, “unplugging” one day a week on Shabbat means more time together. But for our family, a little “plugging in” on Shabbat means shalom bayit (family harmony) for the other six days of the week.

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Rabbi Victor Appell

About Rabbi Victor Appell

Rabbi Victor Appell is the URJ's Congregational Marketing Director. He previously served as the Specialist for Marketing, Outreach & New Communities for the URJ’s Congregational Consulting Group. Rabbi Appell grew up in the Reform Movement, serving as a regional NFTY president and a staff member on Eisner Camp. He was ordained from Hebrew Union College in 1999, and began working for the URJ in 2005. He, his partner, and their two children live in Metuchen, NJ.

11 Responses to “Our Plugged-In Shabbat”

  1. avatar

    This is sad on so many levels I’m finding it difficult to even begin to unpack it. The URJ’s own Marketing & Outreach director publicly advocating gaining a sense of Shabbat by using Shabbat as the day for the family kids to plug IN to video games and TV? While keeping up a busy schedule of soccer practice and play dates–beginning on erev Shabbat, itself? An HUC rabbi determines that giving his kids the opportunity to mindlessly check-out on Shabbat somehow imparts the feeling of Shabbat better than paring down some of those extracurricular activities to give the family a chance to actually engage with Shabbat, itself?

    The problem here is Rabbi Appel’s family overbooking itself on Shabbat. Then answer isn’t to keep adding in activities so that Shabbat gets edged out altogether.

    Being together Friday night into Saturday night as a happy family on a day full of the satisfaction of personal desires with no obvious religious content is secular Humanism. It is not, however, Judaism. Is this really how the URJ wants to market Shabbat under its “New Paradigm”? Find Shabbat by ignoring Shabbat entirely?

    To me as an observant Reform Jew, that’s exactly the message I took away from this post, and frankly it’s insulting.

  2. Rabbi Victor Appell
    Rabbi Victor Appell Reply August 22, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Michael, thank you for joining in the conversation about Shabbat. As a rabbi, I wish all Jews felt as passionately as you do about how we, as Reform Jews, make Shabbat a sacred time. In my own journey, I have learned a few things about both religious observance and parenthood. As one of my teachers, Dale Glasser, taught me, “everyone makes Shabbos for themselves.” We all struggle to find meaningful ways to observe Shabbat and it looks different for each of us. When I was single, and did not live near the synagogue at which I worshipped, my Shabbat dinner was often in a restaurant, without candles, Kiddush or challah. But more often than not, I went to temple on Friday evenings. Now, with a family, life is a bit more complicated. However, every Friday night my family gathers together and we make Shabbat complete with candles, Kiddush and challah. Our children lead these blessings before we bless them. Since not every service at our synagogue is appropriate for a rambunctious seven-year-old, we do not always make it to services on Friday evenings. As my children get older, however, we do find ourselves attending services more often. In my journey as a parent, I have learned that every family must determine what is right for them. If you have children, perhaps you have faced similar dilemmas. I am confident that my children are internalizing the most important lessons of Judaism. They are compassionate, caring and empathetic boys who often go around the house humming the Hebrew songs they learn in religious school. In a perfect world, our Shabbat might look different. But we do not, yet, live in a perfect world. The beauty of Reform Judaism is that it recognizes this and helps us live authentically Jewish lives in the real world.

    • avatar

      “We all struggle to find meaningful ways to observe Shabbat and it looks different for each of us. ”

      Where is the struggle and the Jewish meaning in watching your kids gorge themselves on TV and XBox?

  3. Larry Kaufman

    Thank you, Victor, for so eloquently explaining the pluralistic nature of Reform Judaism to someone who seems to have missed the lesson about the autonomy of the individual to make informed choices.

    I was personally affronted by Mr. Doyle’s attack, not only on you but on the Union. The Union’s New Paradigm, including the current effort here on the blog to celebrate Shabbat, is not based on a principle of “frummer than thou” but rather on an authentic Jewish principle of eilu v’eilu.

  4. avatar

    I must be unfamiliar with Reformism but I don’t seem to understand: Who made Shabbos optional? Isn’t Shabbos one of the Ten Commandments? If G-d commands Jews to keep Shabbos, isn’t is our responsibility to arrange our lives around that? Somehow, Orthodox Jews are able to keep shabbos, despite not living “in a perfect world”.

    I am curious: Does Reform Judaism have any red lines? Or is everything in the Torah open to revision and review?

    • avatar

      We are all unfamiliar with Reformism. If your question pertains to Reform Judaism, Reform Judaism fully honors Shabbos, including the prohibition of work, but does not necessarily accept the same definition of work that you perhaps do.

      Yes, Reform Judaism has red lines, one of whidh is not to disrespect the way that other Jews choose to interpret what God commands. Another is, that because we live in a world that is not yet perfect, we have an obligation to be God’s partner in making it so. Casting aspersions on others does not seem to lead us in that direction.

  5. JanetheWriter

    As we read in R’eih, last week’s Torah portion, “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it.” During his drash, the rabbi in my congregation noted, in fact, that all Jews both add to it and take away from it.

    Only in this way are we–individually and collectively–able to make Shabbat restful and our own Jewish lives meaningful in the wholly (and holy) imperfect world in which we live.

  6. avatar

    Victor, thank you for sharing the ways in which you and your family have been able to separate Shabbat from the rest of the week in a manner that enhances the quality of each. I believe that while the details/specifics may fade from memory, the experience of Shabbat as special will stay with them always. Kol HaKavod!!

  7. avatar

    What a thought provoking discussion. As a Jewish parent I find the idea of a “plugged-in” Shabbat troubling. However, as a parent and a nurse who has spent her career advocating for families I do agree with Rabbi Appell that each family must find what works for them. We all must work to provide for both the material and spiritual needs of our families. In our imperfect world this is often challenging. Much creativity is needed.

    There are as many approaches to the challenges facing the modern Jewish family as there are stars in the sky. Although, I would probably not choose Rabbi Appell’s approach for my family I respect his creative approach. I truly admire that he is embracing Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to his family.

    There are certainly “red lines” in Reform Judaism (although I suspect the specifics vary greatly from person to person). Attempting to refrain from judging another’s interpretation of Torah would be included in my “red lines”. But Judaism is a religion of discussion and dialog. One would hope that the RJ blog would always welcome polite discussion with a variety of viewpoints expressed.


  1. Plugging In Differently on Shabbat | CHICAGO CARLESS - September 14, 2012

    […] 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 […]

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