BERGENFIELD As many area synagogues welcome newcomers this Friday night for the National Jewish Outreach Program’s Shabbat Across America, Cong. Beth Abraham is trying a slightly different approach for its first year with the program.
The borough’s only Orthodox synagogue will begin the evening with an explanatory beginners’ service, as will the other participating congregations, but instead of hosting a communal meal on site, members will host visitors for dinner at their homes.
Part of the reason is practical, explained Sharon Lynn, a Beth Abraham member. "A lot of our members had concerns about coming to join the communal meal when they have little children who can’t be out so late," she said.
So the committee in charge of planning the event decided to change the style of the 11-year-old event. Instead of waiting for potential participants to call and make reservations, they decided to invite specific guests.
"We thought that the point should be to sensitize our community to the needs of those who haven’t experienced a Shabbat meal, and ‘train our muscles’ to reach out," she said. "Why not ask everyone to invite someone they know and have that exercise?"
The committee called each of the nearly 300 member families to explain the idea and offer suggestions as to whom they could ask and how to word the invitation. That has proved a little tricky.
"In [our area of] Bergenfield, there aren’t that many unaffiliated Jews," said Lynn. "The people who’ve moved here are mostly observant Jews. Because it is such an Orthodox community, a lot of people don’t know anybody unaffiliated whom they would feel comfortable asking. So we suggested that they invite co-workers. But people don’t always want to mix work and religion."
Interested parties may still call Beth Abraham, which is listed on the NJOP site as a participating synagogue. They would be paired with a family for home hospitality.
Lynn is hoping the idea will work out well. "Many of our members will be cooking, and if people don’t show up there will be a lot of leftovers," she said with a laugh.
Beth Abraham’s involvement this year stemmed from the encouragement of its rabbi, Yaakov Neuberger. "He thought it would be very important for the community to reach out," Lynn said.
The evening will begin with a service at 7:15 run by Yitz Motechin, who has led beginners’ services at Cong. Kehillat Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum of Teaneck, associate director of NJOP, called the Beth Abraham approach "a great idea, but it’s not really the way we do Shabbat Across America. It’s not the model we originally conceived. The communal meal is in shul for a number of reasons. If you’re a stranger and call after seeing an ad, and you don’t know anybody in Beth Abraham, you might not feel comfortable going to somebody’s house but you’d feel comfortable going to the shul. We want to make it welcome for everybody."
On the other hand, he added, it’s closer to the time-honored practice of inviting strangers to one’s home. "Jews say, ‘If you’re hungry, come in and eat.’ So although we don’t push this model, we certainly like it. It’s one step closer to the traditional way of observing the Shabbat meal in the home rather than the synagogue."
Shabbat Across America was an outgrowth of the outreach organization’s Turn Friday Night into Shabbos, which was mostly based in Manhattan. "Now it’s in 500 or 600 locations across the country," said Rosenbaum. "We are looking to bring people in who are not connected and show them all the interesting things about the Sabbath and the social warmth of meeting people. We wanted to make it super convenient and easy so that they’ll say, ‘OK, I’m going to go.’"
Shabbat Across America locations:
Clifton Jewish Center (Conservative)
Cong. Beth Abraham (Orthodox), Bergenfield
Cong. BethTikvah (Conservative), New Milford
Cong. Bnai Yeshurun (Orthodox), Teaneck
Fair Lawn Jewish Center (Conservative)
Jewish Community Center of Paramus, (Conservative)
Temple Avoda (Reform), Fair Lawn
Temple Beth Israel (Reconstructionist), Maywood
Temple Beth Sholom (Conservative), Fair Lawn
Temple Emeth (Reform), Teaneck
Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center (Conservative), Ridgewood
Temple Sholom (Reform), River Edge
Temple Sinai of Bergen County (Reform), Tenafly