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Unplugging and Sharing Jewish Traditions

Posted on 04 November 2011

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By Emily J. Weitz

Built in to many religions is the opportunity to stop and pause. Whether this means a slow and easy Saturday or six weeks without meat, in some form or another it’s a reminder to take a break from our routines, and to give thanks. In the Jewish tradition, Shabbat is a weekly observation that begins at sundown on Friday and lasts 25 hours. The purpose is to unplug, to kick back, and to remember the bigger picture.

Leon Morris and Dasee Berkowitz, who head up Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, are young, hip, and fun. And they are taking my grandmother’s traditions and bringing them right into the context of the present day.

“Sometimes we are so enslaved to our iPhones we just can’t unplug,” says Berkowitz. “Shabbat is a part of that unplugging process.”

Shabbat doesn’t just mean swearing off devices. It’s the larger meaning behind that. Disconnecting from your iPhone means paying attention to the person sitting in front of you. Refusing to drive means walking and enjoying the brisk night. It means talking, relaxing, and existing in the present moment. That’s what Shabbat Around Sag Harbor is. It’s a chance to observe the evening in your own way, and to share it with family and friends of all faiths.

“The idea is to encourage people to celebrate Shabbat at home,” says Berkowitz. “It’s fun to do it while so many other families are doing the exact same thing… We’ll provide the ritual objects and foods like challah and wine and grape juice.”

The temple will be packing up boxes with homemade challah by Carissa, made of local organic wheat from Amber Waves farm. A bottle of wine, grape juice and two candles will set the mood. A sheet of traditional songs and blessings will be included. And there will be a pack of table teasers, note cards scribbled with interesting questions and provocative quotes to ignite conversation around the table.

Shabbat Around Sag Harbor will start at the temple this Friday, November 4 at 5 p.m. for the popular Shabbat Shaboom, a kids’ program with live music inspired by Shabbat that gets kids singing and dancing. During the summer, this program was held at the windmill by Long Wharf, and passersby were invited to join in. The open door policy holds true at the little temple on the hill. At 6 p.m., young families will probably head home and the general service for grown-ups will begin, and around 7:15 people will disperse to their own homes for dinner.

So what’s the difference between Shabbat and any other Friday night dinner party? The ritual aspect, explains Berkowitz.

“Doing a ritual that’s the same every week can give order and meaning and consistency to a person’s life,” she says. “To add prayers that have been said for generations, it’s a link back. This project [Shabbat Around Sag Harbor] is trying to elevate people spiritually in a different way than just kicking back. It’s the link to history, to ritual, to something beyond ourselves. It creates a space that feels different.”

Other rituals that are part of the Shabbat tradition include a blessing of children on Friday evenings, and a blessing that a husband would say to a wife. In more reform traditions, there are also blessings a wife says to her husband. It’s an opportunity to express gratitude.

“If we didn’t have a script,” says Berkowitz, “we might not take the time to offer that blessing.”

While people will all prepare their own delicious meals, traditional Shabbat foods include noodle kugel, roasted chicken, or chicken soup for Ashkanazi (German/Polish) Jews. In the more Eastern Jewish cultures, curries, coriander, lemons and olives are common. Meat is often eaten on Shabbat because many Jews couldn’t afford meat most of the week, and this was a way to elevate this night to feel special.

There’s a certain humility to observing Shabbat.

Berkowitz describes it as “making an island in time to not manipulate the world around us. We don’t even pick a blade of grass. We are not masters of our own world. One day a week we remember that we share the planet and we don’t control it.”

At a time when families get so wrapped up in their daily routines and their own obligations, Berkowitz believes that Shabbat represents a chance to “take a few minutes and eat delicious food and connect to each other and the larger community and that history.”


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