Discussions at GA: Shabbat Unplugged creates new connections among Jews

ILLUSTRATIVE PHOTO: a woman lights candles on the eve of Shabbat (photo credit: REUTERS/DAN BALILTY)
ILLUSTRATIVE PHOTO: a woman lights candles on the eve of Shabbat
(photo credit: REUTERS/DAN BALILTY)
This year’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, held in Tel Aviv, provided me with the opportunity to learn from Diaspora Jews about how they perceive the crisis of confidence with Israel. This is a crisis for which, in the eyes of many Israelis, Diaspora Jewry blames the Israeli side of the partnership.
I would like to propose a methodology of proven effectiveness to help reconstruct our dialogue, and encourage representatives from both sides to share their concerns, learn from each other’s experience, and examine together how to address them. And I suggest that the first topic on the table be Shabbat, and how through it to create new connections within the Jewish people.
Over the years, Shabbat in Israel has become one of the major sources of disagreement where relations between state and religion are concerned. But in “Shabbat Unplugged” we are turning Shabbat from a bone of contention to a place where we can all connect.
When we set aside arguments about coercion and regulation, and focus on the essence that Shabbat holds for modern society, we can identify many areas of agreement between haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and atheists; between conservative, traditional and cultural Jews; and with secular people of all their manifold variations.
We opened a workshop about the Israeli Shabbat, a safe space for learning and reflecting on sabbatical concepts throughout Jewish and human history; on what it means to be “unplugged” and how this connects to the biblical veyenafash (“rest”); and how slow movements and mindfulness relate to such concepts.
The essence of Shabbat can serve as a tool for education, rehabilitation and recreation. No less, Shabbat can become a time to address such social anomalies as idleness and boredom, and the lack of engagement of young people.
We are applying this philosophy in work with our partners. One program for students has been the inspiration for activities that cater to modern ultra-Orthodox and people who left haredi society. In another, a secular, humanist organization developed an approach to integrate the grandparents’ generation in leading family Shabbat dinners with a national-religious organi zation. Ideas emerge from the deep mutual respect and acceptance of the partners.
Virtually no one holds the middle ground in Israel today. Debates tend to sharpen the edges and create extremism. In Shabbat Unplugged we are creating this middle, making connections between a common past and a shared future.
If Jews in Israel and the Diaspora discuss the unique problems that face us and the creative solutions that each part of the Jewish people are developing, we can enrich our dialogue and divert ourselves from the collision course on which we are headed into a more open place, and to the shared opportunity to learn one from the other. Just as today we bring Israelis together for discussion and learning about Shabbat, we can connect Jews in the Diaspora, both to each other and to Israeli Jews.

The writer is CEO of She’arim (“Gates”)–Implementing Israeli Judaism and the founder of the Shabbat Unplugged initiative.