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My Perfectly Imperfect Shabbat

Times of transition are painful, but Shabbat – when we celebrate in a way that is personally resonant – grounds us.

Celebrating Shabbat was another step I took to connect to Judaism. And through my many experiences of Shabbat, and my desire to share it with others, I became inspired to become a Rabbi and cantor of my own congregation in Los Angeles. But I’m not talking about the obligated Shabbat of my childhood, as observed in my Midwestern, conservative Jewish family. When –after years of updating and growing past the guilt of my inherited faith– I finally let the Shabbat of my imagination take hold, I discovered a whole new bridge to my Jewish faith.

Here’s my story: For 30 years, I was married and raised a family. We faced the same stresses and work schedules that all families are challenged with. Family time – vacations, outings, dinners together – were hard to maintain. I realized I had to do something to carve out this important space. Shabbat was the answer. When I made the commitment, my children were 8 and 5, attending a Jewish day school and both ready and eager to participate in family life.   

Slowly, I introduced different elements little by little. Just putting a tablecloth on the table, or buying fresh flowers were simple acts that set the stage in a palatable way, yet connected back to the teachings of the Sages, who said “the Shabbat table is your sacred altar.”  I truly enjoyed making a beautiful table, adding candles, and even home-baked challah bread. I bought a fun new Kiddish cup that was like a fountain, because as you filled it, it would flow into little cups.

It may sound like the picture of perfection, but it wasn’t. We all had to compromise. When my husband was running late from work, I would need to be patient, setting out snacks and maintaining an attitude that the most important thing was ultimately setting aside the time to be together in gratitude (even if it was later than I would have liked). Eventually, we all adapted and created a most beautiful and imperfect Shabbat ritual.

Over time, it became a fun weekly dinner party that I would invite friends to because I wanted every religious denomination to feel comfortable and find meaning around this sacred table. To make it “just Jewish enough”, I snuck in a “gratitude practice” before we ate. For me, it achieved what traditional prayers were supposed to do. In this gratitude exercise, everyone around the table would share a positive moment from their week, and it soon became the favorite tradition in our home. It made my children proud, and we shared and cherished it with family and friends.

And so, our Shabbat became a sacred moment and anchor in our crazy world, one dinner a week, a time of appreciation and reflection that we could look forward to. There were few rules. You could even do it over takeout food. One of my best memories is of celebrating Shabbat while on an RV trip to the Arches in Arizona. We had so many wonderful times around that proverbial table, no matter what was on the menu or where the table was. The ritual – done our way – helped us develop a new understanding of and connection to our Judaism.

As with everything, the Shabbat practice changed as the children grew up and left the nest. When our marriage fell apart and could not be salvaged, I was too devastated to observe on my own.

But the story doesn’t end there. The synagogue, where I preside, called Nachson Minyan, has a lovely family Friday night service. This warm and loving community kept me going, through the most painful times, and reminded me that I could always come back to Shabbat to find peace and calm, even in stormy waters. I also became aware that I was not alone, and there were many people that were anchored by the Shabbat service and dinners we held.

I am ready to light my candles again, alone, because I now know that I am not really alone but rather at one with God in a sanctuary of peace. Yes, during times of grief and loss, it can be too painful to observe Shabbat alone. But I knew that peace would be there for me when I was ready to receive it. Looking back, I have a gentle compassion for myself and for others who are grieving and for whom Shabbat would be painful.

On a recent trip to Israel, I treated myself to new Shabbat candlesticks. For me, these traveling candlesticks represent the need to move fluidly and flexibly through life and the changes it presents. Times of transition are painful, but Shabbat – when we celebrate in a way that is personally resonant – grounds us. When I light these candles, I am reminded of the courage and strength bestowed upon me by my faith. This is Shabbat for our times, and my calling is to share it with others. It’s no coincidence that “the next wave in Judaism” has become a tagline of sorts at our synagogue. We don’t observe Shabbat simply out of duty to be “good Jews.” My baggage-free and imperfect version of Shabbat turned out to be perfect for my family and congregation. It showed me how I could practice (and preach) Judaism in my own way, and I can honestly say it saved my life.

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