Shabbat and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Arguably, the most important step the Reformers took in bringing Judaism into modernity was the institution of egalitarianism, never reckoning with the grave damage they were inflicting on our greatest treasure, the Shabbat.

By creating the expectation that women would join their husbands at Shabbat services, the focus of celebrating Shabbat moved from the home into the synagogue, including even the lighting of candles. This limited the opportunity for personalizing the Shabbat experience and creating spiritually meaningful memories like those so eloquently described a few weeks ago by Deborah Rood Goldman. The traditional leisurely dinner, complete with motzi, kiddush, extolling the matriarch as eshet chayil (a woman of valor), and blessing the children, was telescoped under the pressure of getting to the temple by 8:00. More recently, associating the advent of Shabbat with the clock instead of with the sun, the now widespread practice of a 6:30 service, preceded by wine and cheese, further erodes the opportunity for Shabbat observance at the family table.

Egalitarianism brought with it another positive step that back-fired – the elimination of the bar mitzvah, in favor of the deferred co-ed ceremony of confirmation. (I doubt the concept of a bat mitzvah ever entered the minds of those pre-Kaplanian Reformers.) But bar mitzvah refused to die. The upside of its return was that it led to holding Shabbat morning services in congregations where they had not previously been held. The unintended consequence in congregations that regularly held Shabbat morning services was that the bar mitzvah took over, driving away the Shabbat morning “regulars” both by making them feel like party-crashers and by making the service about the kid and the family.

The Reformers did well by putting a positive spin on the Sabbath as a day of rest and spiritual refreshment, rather than a day characterized by petty restrictions that actually create work in the supposed interest of banning it. But in eliminating the “Thou shalt nots,” the only effective “Thou shalt” has been, “Thou shalt attend services at the synagogue.” Comes Saturday noon, you’re free to go do… what? If – and only if – there is a program planned for Saturday night, we make havdalah, marking a 7:00 end for a Shabbat we otherwise let depart at noon. We’ve let slip the opportunity to use the afternoon for Shabbat appropriate activities, whether in the synagogue or elsewhere; nor have we defined what are appropriate and inappropriate Shabbat afternoon activities for Reform Jews outside of the synagogue.

Many of my Shabbat-observant Reform friends mark the Shabbat by “unplugging,” but Rabbi Victor Appell recently described how his family makes Shabbat special by making it the day when the children may plug into the electronics that have been taboo all week. Reform Judaism gives us the freedom to make our own choices of how to observe Shabbat but has inadequately reminded us that it is more than a day off – that is is a day not to be treated like any other. Rabbi Mark Washofsky in “Jewish Living” suggests observing Shabbat as a day of freedom from devotion to necessity, such as household chores or things related to our working lives. Helping Reform Jews frame how those broad prohibitions play out in their actual lives represents an unrealized opportunity for congregations to make an impact on the spiritual fulfillment of congregants.

Now, having inadvertently grown some lemons, how do we make lemonade?

First, let’s put our Friday night emphasis back in the home. Limit Kabbalat Shabbat in the synagogue to the basic liturgy – no sermon, no Torah service, no food service. In by 6pm, out by 6:30, and if it’s mostly men because mama stays home to fix dinner, as in days of yore, so be it. The Movement has been lamenting the disappearance of men and boys, so an intended consequence of the new Reform Shabbat could be to give the guys something that is predominantly theirs.

Forty-some years ago, someone observed to me that Shabbat would thrive better if it had a Haggadah that spelled out the procedures, rituals, and liturgies as our Passover Haggadah does.  The URJ has stepped up to the plate, and today supplies that Haggadah, as it were, on its Shabbat page and with blog posts like the recent “Shabbat Observance: Books to Get You Started.” Now any household, no matter how meager their previous exposure, can follow the rituals that help make Shabbat special. Each family can decide for itself whether Shabbat works better for them as an intimate celebration for the nuclear family, or whether it will be improved by the extra ingredient of guests.

Second, let’s give Shabbat morning back to those who want to worship by eliminating the Shabbat morning bar mitzvah. Instead, make Shabbat mincha (afternoon service) the normative time for the bar mitzvah. Families will love it because it eliminates downtime between the service and the party and will not interfere with guests’  normal routines. In addition, because the early evening service means keeping the building open, it becomes easier to offer more Shabbat programming to the congregation and get extra use of the facility as beth midrash (house of study) and beth k’nesset (house of assembly) on a day when it is otherwise primarily beth t’filah (house of prayer).

The intended consequences of these modest proposals are the rejuvenation of erev Shabbat in the home, the revitalization of Shabbat morning worship in the synagogue by serving “bar mitzvah customers” later in the day, and the enrichment of Shabbat afternoon, whether with activity in the temple or with providing guidance on what’s shabbosdik and appropriate, in a Reform context, to help Reform Jews fulfill the mitzvah of remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy. As for the unintended consequences? We’ll never know if we don’t try!

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Larry Kaufman

About Larry Kaufman

Laurence (Larry) Kaufman, z"l, was a member of Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue, in Evanston IL, where he coached b'nai mitzvah candidates on their divrei Torah. A long-time Reform Movement activist, he served on the North American Board of URJ, the North American Council of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the Board of ARZA, and was a past president of Temple Sholom of Chicago. Even while semi-retired, he consulted with an Israeli technology company on its U.S. public relations and marketing communications.

41 Responses to “Shabbat and the Law of Unintended Consequences”

  1. avatar


    I will leave others to comment on the various chat groups. Simply put, you have put into words everything that I have been thinking about for years. I wish I could either add or say something somewhat critical about your blog, but all I can say is “BRAVO!.”

  2. William Berkson

    Wonderful analysis Larry! I particularly like your idea of moving the Reform main service to Shabbat morning and Bar and Bat Mitzvah to Shabbat afternoon.

    My own favorite idea is to wrap short Shabbat morning service around other activities, like Torah study, but they could be very diverse. We don’t have to stick to stuff that is according to halacha restrictions, but there seems to be a reluctance to experiment…

  3. avatar

    Then try we must! Great post, Larry.

  4. avatar

    Absolutely not, at least for your first proposal. I see a whole list of advantages to the Friday night service:

    — The whole congregation comes together on Friday night. This is the service with the widest cross-section of the membership. It has a wider circle than the education programs, or the religious school, or the board, or the various social groups.
    — For those who are not moved by the music, or struggle with the liturgy (either with its meaning or its execution), the sermon provides access to Jewish meaning. The sermon was a Reform innovation, and it’s one that spread to all the other movements — I’ve even heard genuine sermons in orthodox shuls! — because it’s so popular. All jokes about napping in shul during the sermon aside, people actually really like them.
    — It is a good way to set the tone for the rest of Shabbat. In those years when I was a congregant-rabbi and not a congregational rabbi, I would normally spend Shabbat afternoon thinking about the sermon from the night before and I have seen evidence that I’m not the only one who does that.

    Also, I am not at all concerned about the ‘flight of men’ — frankly I have not seen it happen in any of the congregations in which I have participated — nor am I interested in reinforcing male privilege by relegating the women to making dinner. Some women enjoy it; some do not. And some men enjoy it. In my family, my parents usually make dinner and clean up so that we can have a nice Shabbat dinner before services. It is a blessing, to be sure. But each family has its own answer.

    And what about the single-parent families? Are they to stop participating on Friday nights? Before I remarried and my parents retired, I spent five years as a single mom raising my son without any family near. Those Friday nights at the Temple were a great blessing, as the Temple provided the Jewish context and family blessings that I did not have at home.

    • avatar

      Is it possible that the entire congregation comes together on Friday night because that’s the main service, and not that the main service is on Friday night because that’s when the congregation can come together? I’m a Conservative rabbinical student, but I have regularly attended Reform services in the past, and in the days before I took only jobs that allowed me to leave early for Shabbat, it was always a struggle to get to the Friday night service on time. Also, in synagogues that do not (or do not always) serve dinner, there’s a serious dilemma: do I eat before the service (i.e. waaaaay too early) or afterward (when I’m too tired to cook and guests won’t come over– assuming I’m okay with cooking on Shabbat)?

      Saturday morning services, on the other hand, are often much easier to schedule. Perhaps Friday night services are easier for families with young children, but when I was in high school or college, I often had rehearsals or other commitments on Friday nights.

      I taught American Jewish History last year, and sermons definitely pre-date the Reform movement, by the way. The Reform movement has certainly contributed some wonderful things to Judaism, but unless I’m very much mistaken, rabbis speaking to the congregation was not their innovation.

      • avatar

        Good point — The D’var Torah has long been a part of Jewish worship, and the practice of giving a detailed and complicated halakhic sermon just before Passover existed long before the Reform movement appeared. The Reform innovation was a weekly sermon, delivered for the purpose of moral edification, in a language that everyone could understand, at a level of complexity that the entire congregation would understand.

    • Larry Kaufman

      @ Rabbi Truling
      The whole congregation comes together on Friday night. Isn’t it pretty to think so? In my congregation, we typically have a Friday night attendance of 75, and a few less on Shabbat morning, with an overlap of perhaps 5. Note that I do not propose getting rid of the sermon, just moving it to a revitalized Shabbat morning time slot. No one ever got more attention to and atttendance for his sermons, probably, than Abba Hillel Silver, who delivered them on Sunday morning.

      Frankly I don’t care who cooks dinner, I just think it’s likeliest to promote a home celebration of Shabbat if the cook is not under pressure to get to shul. Obviously the thrust of my post first and foremost is the revitalization of Shabbat morning services; but I am enough of a realist to know that something’s got to give.

      I admit that I hadn’t given any thought to the single parent family. My recommendation would still be Shabbat dinner at home, possibly with guests, and the blessings of community and context on Shabbat morning.

      The three great enemies of congregational progress:
      1. This is the way we’ve always done.
      2. We can’t do that — we’ve never done it before.
      3. We can’t do that — we did it 20 years ago and it didn’t work.

      • avatar

        My experience has been that the Friday night service has the widest range of demographics, which is what I meant.

        I have no problem with changing the services, but something I learned in business (before I went to rabbinical school) was that tinkering doesn’t work; you’re apt to make the problem worse. Read, for example, the work of W. Edwards Deming. His most famous example is that of a cannon and a target: if you move the cannon each time to correct mistakes, you will end up with a worse result than if you left it stand where it was.

        What he taught was that you have to start with the intended outcome and then work backwards from it. What is your intended outcome? Revitalization of the services, which is indeed a worthy goal. But why, precisely? What are we trying to accomplish? I have my own answers, but I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say.

      • Larry Kaufman

        Revitalization of erev Shabbat services is a worthy objective — but, as it happens, I am very happy with erev Shabbat in my congregation, except that it precludes any kind of meaningful Shabbat experience at home. Maybe that outoome is not as important in the big picture as I am stating. But I need to hear opinions saying that my desired outcome is not important, or, for those who think it is, how they would propose getting there.

        And it may be pragmatic to view erev Shabbat as the time and place to celebrate — but in my view, Shabbat morning is what we should be stressing.

        • avatar

          Actually since I serve a small congregation that has just one service a week I tend to have a home celebration either on Shabbat morning (if services are in the evening) or in the evening (if services are on Shabbat morning. Our morning home ritual involves pancakes and a leisurely breakfast.

          My suggestion is to leave the services where they are and start extolling the value of a se’udah shlishit — the traditional third meal in the afternoon of Shabbat. Have that be a drawn-out affair with guests and a havdalah afterward. We’ve done that with friends and it is quite a lovely way to celebrate.

  5. avatar

    Larry- Thank you for your thoughtful and thought provoking ideas. I agree with two specific points: Kabbalat Shabbat earlier with only prayer and song. I would make it 50 minutes so I at least have time to prepare myself for prayer. Maybe a small kidush afterwards. And secondly,most definitely move the Bar Mitzvah to the afternoon. But I would entertain a Bar Mitzvah at a morning service, if, and only if, the child read Torah and that was it. If we, as a movement, do not start thinking radicallly and attune ourselves to modern lifestyles, we will have empty synagogues in the coming years that are only open on special occasions.

  6. avatar

    That last comment was posted before I intended to; my hand slipped on the mouse. So I did not get a chance to re-read my message. Happily, there were no typos, but I would have edited it somewhat.

    At any rate, I hope that my intended tone comes through — I’m not intending to be strident, just passionate: I genuinely like the current arrangement and don’t really want to go back to the old ways.

  7. avatar

    Larry, I invite to join me any Shabbat morning at 9:30 at BJBE, in our chapel, for a wonderfully joyous and spiritual Kol Shabbat. Blessed as we are to be led by our clergy team, we have wonderful musicians and a most participatory congregation each week. I would welcome your staying for our Torah study following kiddush. There are, of course b’nai mitzvah sevices in the larger Sacred Hall, so you have a choice!

  8. avatar

    I think it’s a well-reasoned argument. However, my first response to it is that it presupposes a complete nuclear family. A mom who doesn’t have to work until 6:00 pm on Fridays to support her kid(s) in a single-family home. A dad who wants to come home to a tablecloth with white linen on it and the smell of freshly baked challah, not one (as was the case in the home I grew up in, back when families like mine were uncommon) where he is not only the provider, but the person taking care of the house and the child(ren) as well.

    I haven’t looked up what the percentage for a nuclear family is among Jews, but I would guess the highest percentage of complete nuclear families are among the Orthodox, and that their Shabbat observance is very traditional, indeed. America as a whole today does not have a majority of complete nuclear families (please correct me if I’m wrong about this), and it is logical to me, though it may not be accurate, that Reform Jewish families are more in line with the larger demographic than with the Orthodox Jewish one.

    In addition, many nuclear families are now dual-earner families, which makes it more difficult for there to be someone at home early enough on Shabbat to make a meal and a celebration. These could be people who are skipping a home celebration in order to go to the synagogue for services, but rather are not doing one because once they come home (if both are working “normal” working hours), they are too tired at the end of the week to do much of anything else at all. And it may be that the weekend is the only time they can do lots of things that are vital to keeping the home running.

    I believe in ideals, and your proposal could well be an ideal one, in an ideal society with a strong economy. Before we fix Shabbat, there are other fixes that are likely needed to help it along. And since I’ve always been a member of small congregations since attaining adulthood, our bar/bat mitzvahs have been occasional things, rather than every week events, so they didn’t take over Saturday morning. Thus, I don’t think I’m qualified to comment on that part of the proposal.

    The post you made is good food for thought. And this is just my two cents(or shekels).

    Roby Blecker
    Congregation Beth Israel, Bellingham
    205 families

  9. avatar

    Larry, it’s a very thoughtful piece. I have often thought of and even discussed the “Shabos” of my youth, when family would get together — but of course, we all lived within walking distance of each other — and after services we would just relax, hang out, and dine as a family, usually on Cholent, etc. Of course, at services, I was sitting upstairs with my grandmother and my brothers were downstairs with my dad. I wouldn’t want to go back to that arrangement, for sure.

    I think, realistically, for Rabbis working in large synagogues, Saturday night is the time they perform weddings for congregants and having late afternoon services might prove difficult to accomplish. The morning is when they do the B’nei Mitzvah services — which are as you described them, a celebration for the B’nei Mitzvah families, also led by the Rabbi. In my synagogue, and I believe many others, we also have a minyan service on Shabbat, where we study Torah as well as having a service. That service is led by the Assistant Rabbi. Those of us who attend love that service and we’re very loyal attendees. I think that for my purposes, it’s a good solution to finding a way to make Shabbat special. It works for me.

  10. avatar
    Barbara-Ann Lewis Reply August 29, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    A great proposal but I see no place for a Shabbat nap or rest at home. Havdalah can be done at home, too.

  11. avatar

    “and if it’s mostly men because mama stays home to fix dinner, as in days of yore, so be it.”

    Really? I find this very troubling. As a woman, I’m not at all ready for you to so glibly give back all the advances that women have made. And why is it “mama” staying home to cook dinner? It is so exhausting to have to keep fighting these same fights over and over. Not to mention all of the astute comments others have made about how this assumes a nuclear family with work hours that afford this kind of arrangement. It’s pretty easy to say “so be it” when you are the one who gets to go to worship, and someone else has to be the one cooking for you at home to make that possible.

  12. avatar

    I am not sure I should post, because I am seriously offended by your suggestion that women be relegated to the kitchen while the guys go to services on Friday night. Some others have pointed out some of what is wrong with that idea, but that is just the tip of the iceberg.

    Your Friday night suggestion, as well as the suggestion of separating the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony from the “main” service completely works against what I see as the ideal goal, which would be for everyone in the congregation to come together in a place and time where everyone feels welcome, as well as to have the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony be one of welcoming the boy/girl into the community, not a side show for friends and family only.

  13. avatar

    I’m old enough to remember Shabbat being celebrated basically at home. Those days have past and the structure of families has changed. I believe Rabbi Tuling has the stronger argument for Shabbat being a more communal celebration bringing together the Temple family. While Larry’s arguments are interesting, I’m afraid those days have past and we in the Reform movement must continue to evolve.

  14. avatar

    I have issues with a very brief Friday night service, with no Torah reading or Oneg. In my congregation, the best attended Friday night service is when we have a shortened service (with Torah Reading and a brief d’var) followed by a pot luck dinner arranged by congregants.
    On a regular Friday night, when we go to services, if one of is working, we will meet for dinner and go to services. If neither of are working then sometimes we stay home and have dinner and then don’t go to services until the morning.
    If you make the Bar Mitzvah service separate, then you are not accepting the bar or bat mitzvah into the congregation. Then it is a private party! I enjoy bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies because I have watched the child grow up in the congregation. (I teach in the Religious/Hebrew school.) I know that a lot of people do not like to to attend bar/bat mitzvah services, but I find them invigorating.
    We have Torah study before services, but most of those people do not stay afterwards for services, whether there is a bar/bat mitzvah or not.

  15. avatar
    Catherine Shapiro Reply August 30, 2012 at 8:08 am

    Dear Larry …

    I have posted your wonderful piece on my Facebook page, and will spread the word round. It’s obvious you’ve hit a nerve, or something ….. and it’s equally obvious that people have been thinking on this for a long time.
    I agree, for the most part, with your assesment. However … I think you are opening a huge can of worms when you point to equality for women in religious practice as the “change” that led to your list of unntended consequences. There are plenty of reasons for the flight of people from their homes … and they were present long before equalty became the norm. For whatever reason, we left homes and Jewish eighborhoods, and stepped into synagogues. Let’s not get distracted from the main issue … which, is the celebration of Shabbat.

    That is the one thing, above all others, that makes us, as Jews, unique.

    First, the celebration of Shabbat is not made special by its location. It is made holy by those who gather in the proper frame of mind to celebrate it together. And yes, I really do think there is a proper frame of mind for this!

    The mandates we grew up with are part of building that frame of mind, that’s why they are important.

    Unfortunately, this “framework”is easily disturbed, and it gets disrupted just as you’ve described. The results can really make themselves felt, most especially on Saturday mornings! The number of times that I’ve seen people walking away from Saturday morning sevices looking as though they were feeling frustrated rather than refreshed is kind of sad.

    There are all kinds of ways you can “fix’ Shabbat. They should depend a little on local custom. But they must be based in Torah and halachah.

    I sincerely hope we’ve started a trend, not just a discussion. Have a sweet New Year!

    Catherine Shapiro
    Life Long Learning Committee chair
    Temple Beth Orr
    Coral Springs FL

  16. avatar
    Catherine Shapiro Reply August 30, 2012 at 8:18 am

    By the way … Having a bar/bat mitzvah candidate lead services at say, 5:30 PM has been the norm for as long as I’ve been there. It’s an option that works out quite well … better than Saturday mprnings, for some. And as far as I know, it doesn’t interfere with our Rabbi’s ability to conduct weddings, even on Saturday nights. 🙂


  17. avatar

    Larry, Great piece! B’hatzlacha! Will it work? Not in our lifetimes 🙁 I think you have come up with a brilliant way to move the Bar Mitzvah service to a better time. There will not doubt be pushback from all concerned!

  18. avatar

    Sorry, Larry: I couldn’t disagree more.

    1) the idea that in this day you would assume that a big part of the erev Shabbat equation is that “mama stays home to fix dinner”just boggles the mind. If you’d said, “one member of the family,” maybe, but as it stands it’s sexist and inaccurate.

    Also assumes that ANYONE would travel the distance from home or office to synagogue for a half hour, perfunctory service. (Where many people are in walking distance, different story — but where in the Reform world is that?)

    Also agree with the comment above about how important Friday night services are to some Reform congregations.

    2) while I applaud the idea of making Shabbat morning services FOR those who want to worship, I am pretty seriously horrified by the idea that any Jewish congregation would give up on the idea — however hard it is to put into practice — of instead returning bnei mitzvah celebrations to the worship service. Teach kids, their families, and the rest of the congregation that the point of a bar/t mitzvah is for the young person to become an adult in a vibrant worshipful community through. Then celebrate that through a vibrant worshipful service on Saturday morning (or Friday night, if that’s the custom).

    But whenever is the big gathering for a community, that’s when lifecycle events are noted — it’s a hugely important part of worship. Needs improvement, sure, but giving up is just that: surrender.

  19. avatar

    Enjoyed your blog post. However, doubt its practicality although it might work in a less formal setting than a synogogue. Rabbi Tuling, after reading your post I noted your lack of concern about the role of men in the Reform Temple. Disappearing men hardly addresses the situation of the over involvement of women in synogogue life and governance. Let’s not make the sanctuary hostile space for men.

    • avatar

      I am not saying that I would not be concerned if that were the case; I am just saying that I have not seen that particular phenomenon take place in any of the congregations where I’ve been involved:

      Temple Beth El, Aliso Viejo, CA (1,00 members – board was half-half, as were services)
      Valley Temple, Cincinnati, OH (about 300 members – board was half-half, as were services)
      Temple Sholom, Cincinnati, OH (about 300 members at that time -services were half-half; I did not have any affiliation with the board)
      Temple B’nai Abraham, Portsmouth, OH (40 members – board and services were half-half)
      Temple Beth El, Muncie, IN (70 members – board and services were half-half)
      Temple Beth Sholom, Middletown, OH (50 members – board and services werehalf-half)
      Temple Beth Israel, Plattsburgh, NY (my current one: again, half-half)

      …which is why I’m not concerned. But it could be that I have worked for/prayed with 7 exceptional congregations.

  20. avatar

    Synagogues need to offer a variety of programs and events all week long. In my
    experience if people feel comfortable and welcomed, they will come back.

    I happen to like to attend Bar and Bat mitzvah services. Most times I don’t know the child, and sometimes not even the parent. Yet I still like to be part of the community of congregants who welcomes this child into this special rite of passage.

    As to “mama in the kitchen,” that comment
    is sexist. Just look at all the men who are featured on the Food Network TV shows.
    Those days, thank goodness, are over, or should be. I’m for paying a reasonable amount of money and having a catered dinner. I have found that pot luck sometimes is not very lucky.

  21. Larry Kaufman

    For all those who have called me on sexism, I plead guilty. And if you are satisfied with the erev Shabbat status quo, there isn’t much point in our having dialogue. I started out my post with a paean to egalitarianism as a glory — if not the glory — of Reform Judaism. But I then pointed out that its downside was the erosion of meaningful Shabbat celebration on Friday night in the home — as many of us experienced who grew up in less egalitarian environment.

    If the aim is to “chadesh yameinu kakedem,” , renew our days as of old, I challenge my critics to make suggestions as to how to accomplish it.

    If I saw erev Shabbat in the synagogue drawing attendance in the range of even 20% of membership, I might say OK, it’s not broke, let’s not fix it. People are observing Shabbat as a community, not as a family – dayenu.

    I set out three problems or goals and three possible solutions.
    If you like my goal, tell me how you would go about achieving it. If you disagree that the goal is worthwhile, then the solution doesn’t matter.

    1. Celebrate Shabbat en famille at home.
    2. Reclaim Shabbat morning from its current actuality where the glorification of a 13 year old drives away those who are not invited guests
    3. Nobody really seems to object to #3, enrich Shabbat afternoon — although my erstwhile davening partner Barbara Ann Lewis has a reasonable suggestion — use it for menucha , Shabbat rest.

    I’m just trying to light some candles rather than cursing the darkness. And I remind you that those movements who are doing it more or less as I describe are seemingly growing faster than we are.

    • avatar

      Hello again, Larry!

      Thanks for the above clarification. I am truly amazed by the discussion that you’ve generated …. and quite surprised at the simmering level of outright frustration, and pessimism that I’m sensing here.

      I see a lot of dedication, great love and support, too.

      That’s good, because it’s needed. Shabbat is so problematic for us precisely because the idea itself is not easy to understand.
      Stopping and letting go of daily, ordinary things is hard. Ceasing to create …??? It’s an odd concept that’s hard for modern humans to swallow.

      What’s worse, we make it seem as though we are faced with simple ideas — and all or nothing choices. Therefore, the fixes we create are extreme.

      Synagogue or home, a morning bar mitzvah service that over-glorifies our kids — or congregational worship? I believe the issue of celebating Shabbat and how we do it is extremely important, and does demand attention. But the final solution to our question, if I may be so bold, is INTERNAL.

      Let’s start within ourselves, first. Take your family’s home based solution to your congregation; you may find like minded individuals, and then you can present it at the congregational level.

      Just a thought.

    • avatar

      I’d encourage you to read my most recent blog post on, titled “Against Authenticity, Narrowly Defined” which I think would clarify my position.

      All the best to you.

    • avatar

      One other thing — I’ve seen participation in Friday night services vary from less than 5% to 40%. And in all cases, whatever level of participation the congregation had, it tended to stay there regardless of efforts to change it. What has seemed to be true of congregations with well-attended services? So far as I can tell, three things:

      — Everyone sings
      — The entire board participates regularly
      — The rabbi clearly engages in prayer

      • avatar

        Rabbi Tuling, I couldn’t agree more! If lay leaders and clergy don’t lead by example, participating with gusto and sincerity, then few others will. The most disturbing thing to me is when a Rabbi seems like they are merely “reading” rather than praying. It is a slippery slope to claim to know what is going on in someone else’s head, and surely outward appearances can be deceiving, but nonetheless I feel that many clergy don’t really believe or agree with what they’re saying in the Liturgy. Congregants who believe in a real, present, “listening” God may be unable to have a satisfying worship experience when the one leading the worship seems not to share that concept of prayer.

        I have attended many such services, and even if I personally like the rabbi in question, the service itself makes me feel sad, hurt, and angry. Likewise, I am pleasantly surprised and deeply moved when rabbis and cantors sound like they’re “really praying”, and end up liking such services even if they’re otherwise not “my style”.

  22. avatar


    Let me get this straight. The Jewish population in North America is shrinking. Membership in synagogues, temples and other such congregations is shrinking. Attendance more than twice a year by those who are affiliated is abysmally low. And you are wondering (1) whether the small minority of Jews who actually care enough to appear for a service on Erev Shabbat should do so at 6:30 pm or 8:00 pm and (2) whether b’nai mitzvah services should be on Saturday morning or afternoon?

    The fact is that the needs and desires of individuals and groups change over time for a variety of reasons, including family situations, health and the economy among others. No one solution will attract, appeal to or retain members all the time or even from time to time at any one place let alone in the great diversity of congregations across the continent. So, let there be as many experiments possible: early, late, with only song, with much silence. Let the vertical Jews daven and the horizontal Jews join arm in arm. Let the people decide what works for them because, in the end, Judaism is the evolving civilization of the Jewish people. And, as the Sephardim say: Que sera sera.

    Now that that is resolved, how about tilting at bigger windmillim (or is it windmillot)? How about trying to ensure that when and wherever these services are held those who attend will encounter a Judaism that is fit for the adults of Israel and not just the children of Israel? If we could just do that, then maybe, just maybe, more people would participate.


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    Actually, I agree with Roger. Although people who know me realize that I am active in Roslyn, I also belong to a small synagogue in upstate NY, near my vacation home. It is a Reform synagogue. I joined because they’re small and need a base. I rarely go because I am rarely there.

    They have a hired a new, young Rabbi. I haven’t met her yet, but everyone I have spoken to is complaining about the fact that she has changed the service so much that they no longer wish to attend. They’re dreading the High Holy Day services. You really have to take people where they are and give them what they’re looking for. This is an older congregation, no children, and this young Rabbi, from what I’ve been told, is introducing a lot of new music at one time, changing the order of the prayers, etc. A lot of adults prefer the status quo or at least small gradual changes. If the adults are “turned on” then children have an example to follow. If the adults stop attending, then children will never learn that they should attend.


    • avatar

      Yes, young (and newly-minted, not-so-young) rabbis are prone to that, in a burst of enthusiasm for finally getting to put all into practice. But keep in mind that it could be that she doesn’t know any other tunes — at least not well enough to want to have to lead the congregation in singing them — and it also could be that no one has mentioned this matter to her. She might not know!

    • avatar

      Also — I am reminded of an experience I had as a newly-minted rabbi. The congregation asked me to make big changes to the HHD service — Get really innovative! Be creative! Change everything! At the meeting afterward, the same group of people who gave me that set of instructions came back and said ‘we loved all the innovations; it was a great holiday experience. There are just a few things we’d like you to change back the way that they were.’ Then they proceeded to list every single change I had made, to the smallest detail. And it was clear that they had no idea they had done so.

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    I think the assumption that one can’t have a meaningful Shabbat at home followed by attending a synagogue Shabbat service is not true, if they are willing to make the effort. When our children were growing up and both of us were working, I (the Dad) arranged my schedule to be home early enough to prepare a simple Shabbat dinner. It may have been only meat and a vegetable, with a store bought challah, but it was there every Shabbat and still a special meal to us. We preceded it with thank yous for everyone (not just a ritual “woman of valor” for the mom), blessings for the children, and candle lighting and kiddush. And we still did manage to get to temple services (which have been at 7:30, 8:00, or 8:30 depending upon the year or temple. We never went to 6:30 services because they impinged on the home celebration. Now that the kids are grown, it is this home “doing Shabbat” (as they named it) that they remember fondly.

    I think it’s a rabinical fantasy to assume that if we reorder the schedule, somehow magically people will become involved. People will become involved when it matters to them, and will sort out their schedule to allow it!

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    This is a great conversation but ——- it is a conversation that has been going on for 15 years or more. How do we get them back in the synagogue? Let’s be realistic , people are not joining synagogues today. Why? Multiple reasons, economic being one of them, but we are not giving them what they want. And the they is not the faithful few who come regularly. I am speaking of the thousands out there across the country who see no value in belonging. The URJ did a study a few years ago in why people join a synague and as I recall worship was pretty high on the list and well ahead of social action.

    So why don’t we do something radical about worship rather than have the same conversation over and over again. Who is brave enough to take the step and I am not talking about “moving the canon” but getting a brand new canon.

    Kudos to Larry for saying lets do something different and I add , let’s be radical!

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    Your Friday-night solution works fine, I suppose, for people who aren’t already going to services (permission to punt) and those who *have* families to celebrate with. It leaves lots of other people out in the cold. Let me share a few:

    * The single person, for whom that contact with the community is all he’s going to get for Shabbat evening. Lighting candles and eating alone at home is boring. You might say “hospitality!”, but collectively we’re pretty bad at this.

    * The two-worker household. You’re saying that they should deliberately split up, with the man going off to services (probably stopping there on his way home from work) while the woman stays home and cooks. That the family comes together afterwards doesn’t compensate for the fact that you’ve split the family up in the first place. What happens when the stay-at-home partner also wants to welcome the Shabbat queen with the community?

    * Those with a more-traditional Shabbat observance. For those who don’t kindle fire on Shabbat (just like it says, multiply, in torah), the “stop at shul on the way home from work” model doesn’t work; once you leave the synagogue you can’t drive home and cook dinner. So, combined with early services, you’re telling those people to stay home.

    I would love to see Shabbat morning become more communal, more Shabbosdik, and less of the “family performance b’nei mitzvah” that everyone else feels excluded from. (It’s not a hard exclusion; you could go if you wanted to. But if the service is all about little Yosef, rather than all about God and Shabbat, why would you?) I’d love to fix this problem, but we aren’t there yet. If we fix that then we can alter Friday night without doing harm, ending up with something like what’s common in the Orthodox world. Your idea seems to be that if we break Friday night for many people, we’ll *have* to fix Saturday morning. I don’t think that’s what will happen; I think, instead, fewer people will come overall, and we’ll have two broken Shabbat services instead of just one.

    My congregation has a healthy regular Shabbat morning minyan. The people are there for Shabbat, for the community, and to pray. (We’re perfectly happy to celebrate life-cycle events, though we’ve gotten no takers on b’nei mitzvah so far.) It’s a healthy community, but it’s also a small one. This service is the height of my week, spiritually speaking; unfortunately, from what I understand, it’s also still pretty rare in our movement. We need more of that before we take away the community nature of the only community service we do have — which, for better or for worse, is Friday night.

    Aside: my congregation has also been experimenting with Friday nights lately, with the result being that many of them are no longer fulfilling for me. I used to go every Friday; now I stay home more often than I’d like. I feel pushed out, and I imagine how much worse it would be if that were the only functional service I had!

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    I grew up with Shabbat family dinner, preceeded by lighting candles, wine/grape juice, challah and the blessings. Then my parents went to 8:00 services and I stayed home and read books while watching the candles burn down. I left Judaism for many years and came back, partly because I had such fond memories of Erev Shabbat. I live alone and now and then share a Shabbat meal with friends (at my home or theirs) which includes the candles, wine, challah and blessings. Having Shabbat dinner with friends, we most often linger at the table after dinner. At my synagogue Beth Emet, Evanston services are at 8:00pm only once a month; all other Friday nights at 6;30pm. Even if services were were always at 8 or 8:30 I doubt we would hussle out to make it to services, it doesn’t seem very Shabbat like, much too rushed.

  28. avatar

    A great proposal but I see no place for a Shabbat nap or rest at home. Havdalah can be done at home, too.

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