There will not be large gatherings of people eating, drinking and talking together this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, yet however different the 25th annual Shabbat Across America and Canada looks the event’s mission remains the same – to connect Jews across North America.
On March 5, the New York-based National Jewish Outreach Program, which launched Shabbat Across America and Canada, is asking people to host the event in their homes with a focus on individuals, couples and immediate family. Since the event began a quarter of century ago, more than 1.1 million people have taken part in the celebration.
Shabbat for Jews begins at sunset on Friday and ends with sunset on Saturday. Shabbat commemorates the day that God rested after creating the world, according to the Torah. The word Shabbat literally means he rested. It is considered a day of peace and holiness.
The celebration of a weekly religious observance is important because it “reinforces on a congregation level communal celebration, highlights the importance of Sabbath and is a profound act of Jewish unity,” that transcends all the diverse Jewish sects, said Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, who leads Temple Israel of Lawrence, a Reform congregation.
Rosenbaum said that the event offers outreach and in-reach and provides the model and the unifying dynamic from the beginning of the Shabbat meal to the blessings over the wine and food and the included prayers.
“It is especially important these days fraught with so much concern and suffering, and providing a message of hope though physically distanced in many cases from one another, we are never distanced from God spiritually and emotionally,” he said.
Established in 1987 by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald in response to an escalating loss of Jews from Jewish because of assimilation and what was viewed as a lack of knowledge on Jewish culture, the National Jewish Outreach Program created educational programs to teach the “relevance and vibrancy of Judaism to contemporary Jews by providing greater understanding and knowledge of the basics of Judaism and Jewish life,” according to a statement on its website. Social media has also become a vital component of its programming.
Temple Beth El, a Conservative congregation in Cedarhurst will be taking part in this year’s event. “We will have enhanced Friday night services with special musical elements and the opportunity for congregants to connect via zoom as they enjoy a traditional Shabbat dinner in their own homes,” said Dr. Edward Edelstein, the temple’s executive director. “Shabbat is both a value as a day of rest and an experience that binds the Jewish people together — regardless of practice or denomination. Now, more than ever, we need to strengthen the sense of belonging and staying connected to one another, even when we cannot do that in person."
Conservative congregation Temple Hillel in North Woodmere typically takes part every year along with Young Israel of North Woodmere, an Orthodox synagogue, said Rabbi Steven Graber, who leads Temple Hillel.
“The main purpose of the program is for people to pray together and to eat together,” he said. “It seems that most of the people who would come to the program are already coming to Friday night services and therefore are already praying together. Since we cannot eat together, we decided that we would wait until next year to do Shabbat Across America.”
As part of this year’s socially distant program, the National Jewish Outreach Program is urging those who do take part to share photos of their Shabbat meals on social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
For Temple Israel participants the hashtags #TILNYORG, #TempleIsraelLawrence, #TempleIsraelLawrenceNY are encouraged to be used.