The contrast between the beauty of the idea of Shabbat and the actual practice of making it meaningful to my family has sometimes challenged me as the single mom of five children. Shabbat is supposed to be a time of peace, fellowship and relaxation. It is supposed to be a taste of the world to come, a time carved out from the rest of the week for holiness and togetherness.
But in the reality of fast-paced family life, by Friday afternoon my family is often run ragged. The neverending demands of school and work, and the endless behind-the-scenes necessities of scheduling appointments, hassling with insurance companies and arranging for transportation wear us down. By Friday afternoon, we are all depleted and frayed.
Yet, I want my family to bask in the spiritual nourishment that Shabbat offers. I want us to live by the rhythm of the Jewish week: six days of industry and a seventh day of rest, following the pattern set by the biblical story of God’s creation of the universe. It makes sense to me to live by a rhythm of work and rest, work and rest, work and rest, and to elevate the value of this balance to a core family practice.
My family’s practice of Shabbat is far from a traditional or halachic observance. But we have found methods to make Shabbat meaningful and fun in our own way.
For example, I learned a lot years ago by joining forces with my lover at the time, Rebecca, who was also a single mother.
In the past, when I invited guests for Friday night, getting ready for them was so stressful that it almost wasn’t worth the effort. Rebecca’s idea was to get ready with the guests, who would join us in setting the table, making the salad and putting toys away. In this way, we let the Shabbat ritual be a relational framework for paying attention to each other’s lives and to our world.
As we light the candles on Friday night, we send light to all those we love and all those who are in need. I always make sure to include the names of the sperm donors and the birth parents who helped make this family. Including them in our circle of light, naming the names, helps everyone feel connected and validated. Each child gets to light candles and choose where to send light. Shabbat becomes a time of memory, sharing and linkage.
As we move to kiddush, each person holding the cup shares something brief about their week or about something they are looking forward to on the weekend.
I’ve been moved over the years to hear things my kids didn’t mention during the week, such as their pride at scoring a goal or acing a test or making up with a friend. The light of Shabbat shines on our lives, opening them to each other.
Over the challah, which we do with everyone touching the bread together, I say thank-yous to people who were helpful during the week before we break bread together. Often, we sing together as well — when I had antsy young children who needed help staying engaged, sometimes I would invite them to play the drums to accompany the singing.
To give Shabbat to myself as well as to my family, I added a weekly mikvah just for me. My mikvah, or immersion in the living waters, is a simple 15-minute time-out on Friday afternoon in my own bathtub. It’s not an official mikvah, but it is a sanctuary that has helped me truly receive Shabbat each week for decades.
It is meaningful to me to light the candles, taste the fruit of the vine and bless the challah, whether or not the children participate with enthusiasm. Shabbat is just as much for my soul as it is a performance for the sake of the children. Remembering that I am doing this for myself makes me feel calmer and under less pressure to corral children into an idyllic Shabbat scenario each week.
Friday night is our family’s Shabbat time. By Saturday morning, the kids have sports or music practice, I have rabbi work to do, and we sometimes do family errands or other outings.
I am happy that we find ways to bring Shabbat into our lives and to share Shabbat with others in our own joyful ways.
Rabbi Julie Greenberg, the rabbi of Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir~Heart of the City, is the author of the newly released Just Parenting: Building the World One Family at a Time which is available from www.JulieGreenberg.net  and from Amazon books.