I have attended countless Jewish leadership conferences. In many instances, I have even been on the steering committees responsible for the selection of a theme, the development of programming, wrangling speakers and overall logistical planning. Those responsible for scheduling always grapple with the same question: What do we do about Shabbat?
Too often, conference organizers avoid Shabbat programming like the plague. Shabbat is seen as such a logistical nightmare and religious tinderbox that international conference attendees are most often left to their own devices. But this is a missed opportunity.
The intrinsic power of Shabbat is its ability to bring people together — family, friends and complete strangers. As such, it is the responsibility of conference organizers to harness this power and use it to unite their participants and further their conference’s Jewish objectives.
In the months leading up to May’s CONNECTIONS conference in Jerusalem, the four-day biennial event hosted by the World Union for Progressive Judaism, our steering committee decided to embrace Shabbat rather than work around it. After all, with 450 lay leaders, rabbis, students and congregants from Progressive, Reform and Liberal communities around the world in attendance, Shabbat provided the perfect opportunity to bring them all together to network, study, pray — and eat.
I will never forget how we embraced Shabbat, and what it meant to all of us.
Late Friday afternoon, we made our way to Jerusalem’s First Train Station (Tahana Rishona) to welcome in Shabbat early. With the partnership of eight Reform congregations in and near Jerusalem, hundreds of Israeli congregants joined us for an upbeat Kabbalat Shabbat the likes of which many of our attendees had never experienced before. Accompanied by a band, with joyous group singing and dancing, strangers passing by couldn’t help but join us. And finally, the delegates were welcomed to the homes of locals for dinner.
The celebrations continued on Shabbat morning, when dozens of rabbis and young rabbinic students from five continents led us in small group Torah study and a morning service with more than 450 attendees. We utilized a new siddur compiled from 28 Reform and Progressive prayer books from around the world, reflecting 18 languages spoken in the 30 countries represented. Following services, the delegates ate lunch together and participated in walking tours of Jerusalem.
We embraced Shabbat, and Shabbat embraced us in return, strengthening us as individuals and as a movement. It would have been nearly impossible to make a statement this profound during the work week.
Our Shabbat together allowed us to put the very best of Judaism on display. Instead of merely discussing our heritage and tradition, we resolved to live our tradition by incorporating Shabbat into the programming. There’s attending a conference that makes you think, and then there’s attending a conference that makes you feel, connect and grow.
As we know, Shabbat is the “secret sauce” of Jewish life, so it should come as no surprise that a Jewish leadership conference would be positively impacted by its inclusion. Even after thousands of years, Shabbat remains an unparalleled communal spiritual experience. And when you embrace Shabbat, Shabbat will embrace you in return. JN
Rabbi Daniel H. Freelander is the president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.