By Reba Auslander-Stevens

It’s hard to choose a favorite moment from our July ’14 JWRP trip, but if forced I would say our Shabbat in Jerusalem was it.  In particular, on Saturday we split into a few groups of 40 to have a Shabbat lunch in private homes, hosted by families who truly love sharing their weekly day of celebration and rest with visitors.  The program, Shabbat of a Lifetime,” was created by a lovely couple – American mom Michelle and British dad Natanel, with three kids and one on the way – and my group was lucky to be hosted in their home that day.  

A few years ago after reading “Blessings of a Skinned Knee,” by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D, I started doing Shabbat dinners. My parents were not religious but my mother religiously held Shabbat dinners, inviting anyone who needed a good meal on a Friday night. After she passed away in 1985 and especially as I got a bit older, having Shabbat dinner at the homes of friends or family was my favorite time of the week.  

But as it goes for so many of us who aren’t observant’, in my home life got in the way of lighting candles, enjoying challah and wine in a special Kiddush cup, saying blessings, and eating together.  A last-minute work deadline; late karate class for our son; an after-school playdate for our daughter that turns into a sleepover… whatever the reason, Friday nights became just any other night of the week.

At Michelle and Natanel’s I felt very much at home with the 39 other JWRP women.  Though I had never done Shabbat lunch on my own, I have always enjoyed being at the homes of people who do. I love the idea of having nothing to do but eat and talk, focus on our kids, go to Shul, catch up on life events, reflect, renew, etc.

Sitting in their living room, singing Shabbat tunes, I was reminded of spending time in a home in Jerusalem 25+ years ago as a teenager, where I used to have a similarly awesome experience. Making conversation, I told Michelle about the couple I knew through a friend who – despite being in their 30’s and having 14 kids – opened their home to us for Shabbat dinner or lunch whenever we were in town with a fabulous time that seemed effortless. Then Michelle asked their name and sure enough, the mom lives only a few blocks from her and we were able to re-connect. Odd, or G-d? [topic of a future blog post, stay tuned!]

All this made me realize, Shabbat should be fun, not a burden in the midst of other life activities that while important, pale in comparison to seizing a few hours if not a day to enjoy being a family. Since I’ve been home, I have indeed rekindled our Shabbat dinners and have made them even better. I’ve baked regular and Gluten free challahs, cook Jewish foods my kids especially enjoy (my chicken soup is a major favorite), and read out loud portions of the Shabbat of a Lifetime booklet so we can all better understand the meaning and rituals of Shabbat. On a side note, I learned more about the latter on this one week trip than after 10 years of private Jewish day school, two Jewish camps, and spending more than 3 years of my life in Israel. 

It’s certainly not perfect. The blessings for the kids don’t yet come naturally. The kids can get silly during the prayers. My husband is supportive but not yet entirely present during our brief ceremony.  But… my kids are excited by fresh challahs. My 9 year-old daughter loves setting a nice table and lighting/blessing the candles. We’re sitting down together to eat and often entertaining others who are enjoying the meal with us. My son asks each week if we’re doing Shabbat in case he can skip his karate class (we’re working on a better solution for this one).

I don’t know if we’ll ever get to practicing a 24-hour Shabbat, but with baby steps, thanks to Michelle, Natanel, and our other spectacular Shabbat hosts in Jerusalem, we’re moving in the right direction. 

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