Traveling Shabbat

Table set for Shabbat

Last Friday, in a quiet cul-de-sac near Beth El Congregation in Phoenix, a dozen people — some old friends, others relative strangers — gathered at the home of Audrey Wolff and Stephen Winkelman to welcome Shabbat and share a meal.

The evening was an experiment for what Beth El Rabbi Nitzan Stein Kokin is provisionally calling “travel Shabbat.” The idea is to rekindle the community spirit of Kabbalat Shabbat a few years after the COVID-19 pandemic initiated quarantines and limited people to small social pods.

Even once Beth El opened its doors again, many members, especially older ones, remained hesitant to return in person for the weekly service. Stein Kokin continued leading prayers on Zoom from the sanctuary, but after months of only one or two people joining her in person, she decided she could do the same from the intimacy of her home.

It soon occurred to her that she could do it from anyone’s home. If her congregants couldn’t come to Beth El, she could bring Beth El, at least a small part of it, to them. She asked the board and active members if they would be interested in hosting on a trial basis. Wolff volunteered her home for the first Shabbat.

Hosts are welcome to invite anyone they choose because it’s important they have a connection with at least a few people. The rabbi asks that they also ask a few people they don’t know so well.

“It’s worthwhile reaching out to new people as a welcoming gesture, so people can integrate in a personal setting rather than in the big social hall,” Stein Kokin said.

Wolff, the Conservative synagogue’s board president, asked friends who have been in her chavurah for years and some who are new to the Beth El community. As Shabbat neared, people arrived and politely arranged themselves in the living room after picking up a siddur provided by Stein Kokin. Faces began appearing on Zoom, the rabbi welcomed everyone and started the service.

People, already a bit nervous in an unfamiliar setting, sang quietly some of the new melodies the rabbi was trying out, their voices growing stronger when she chose old standards. At the conclusion of the service — the candles lit, kiddush and hamotzi blessings offered — the rabbi shut off Zoom, closed the laptop and everyone sat down to dinner.

Sitting around the table, people introduced themselves and engaged in anodyne conversation initially. As the evening progressed and people felt more at ease, topics turned more personal and engaging. Parents spoke about their children, their children’s colleges and choices for Jewish life on campus. Conversation soon turned to happenings at Beth El and in the wider Jewish community. Sharing favorite traditions and funny stories brought easy laughter. People may not have walked in knowing each other well but it was clear they soon felt themselves among friends.

Wolff thought it was a step forward in making Shabbat more accessible to “families who didn’t grow up with traditional Shabbat dinner. It’s less intimidating than when we’re in the sanctuary, where not everyone is so comfortable,” she said.

The comfort and intimacy of a living room or patio on a warmer evening make it seem less like an imposing ritual to anyone not raised attending synagogue services or knowing all the prayers, she said.

“People might worry and think they’re doing something wrong, but here there is no real right or wrong way. It’s just a matter of gathering and celebrating the end of the week together,” she said.

Emily Bogusch hopes the experiment continues because “it’s a lovely way to share Shabbat, and I like that the rabbi includes the whole congregation with Zoom. I think that’s fabulous and technology is a wonderful thing. I hope to see it grow,” she said. There are already two more scheduled.

Bill Tuttle acknowledged that many Beth El congregants are cautious due to COVID but would like to see people return to the sanctuary. Still, “anything you can do to have fellowship is good,” he said.

Tania Tafle, a relative newcomer to Phoenix and Beth El, liked the idea of joining potential new friends for Shabbat.

“It’s very nice to sit with new people, meet with them and learn what they do,” she said.

The atmosphere was ideal for providing meaningful conversations, Stein Kokin said. “It was not too small, not too big and a wonderful mix of newer and longtime members who don’t get the chance to know each other at larger events.”

Stein Kokin first floated the idea of satellite Jewish communities at Valley Beit Midrash’s panel “Can the Phoenix/Scottsdale Community be United?” on Jan. 17. She would like to see a Jewish community more open and accessible to Jews who are unaffiliated, who might not want to go to a synagogue but would go to a friend’s or a colleague’s house for Shabbat dinner or other spiritual gatherings.

“We need Judaism in our lives and we need friends in our lives. If we can bring it to people and uplift Shabbat in that way, I’ve achieved a lot,” she said. JN

For those interested in hosting a Shabbat service/dinner, contact