Just over a year ago, on a Friday night, more than 80 families from Temple Sinai in Dresher shared Shabbat dinner in 29 different homes as part of a new initiative called “Guess Who’s Coming to Shabbas?”
By June 2013, more than 82 percent of the congregation had either hosted or been invited to someone’s home for Shabbat dinner.
What the program has done for my synagogue of just over 500 families has been nothing short of remarkable. And today, Conservative and Reform congregations around the country are adopting the model for one reason: It’s working.
Particularly in light of the Pew study showing disengagement from Jewish life and synagogues in particular, this is a success story we need to share.
The initiative was actually conceived from a broken heart — mine — when I lost my father, Bernie Albert, z’l, in March 2012.
Following his death, there was discussion about what to do to honor his life. We who knew him best agreed that it was essential that we do something to strengthen our congregation and help families create meaningful memories, two things my father had devoted his life to.
Our idea? A Shabbat dinner pyramid scheme. We asked a handful of families to host other congregants for Shabbat dinner in their own homes, with the expectation that the guests would then serve as hosts in subsequent months.
The program, which I was asked to present earlier this month in Baltimore at the Conservative movement’s convention, has several essential elements. Among them:
• No rules. We make it clear that everyone does Shabbat differently. Lighting candles, making Kiddush and saying motzi is “doing” Shabbat. We provide a brochure with the blessings in English, Hebrew and transliteration and also send hosts audio files with the brachot, the words to “Shalom Aleichem,” and the blessings for the children.
• Thinking outside your comfort zone. We ask hosts to invite congregants they don’t know well. Rather than guests reciprocating by inviting their hosts later on, we ask congregants to “pay it forward” by engaging new families.
• Branding it. Branding has allowed congregants to feel as if they are part of something “big.” Hosts receive a reusable shopping bag containing a challah, the brochure and a packet of table-talk cards with questions for discussion, such as: “If you could invite anyone from the Torah to your Shabbas dinner, who would it be and why?”
• Shabbat morning aliyah. Because one of the goals is to strengthen the congregation, all participants — hosts and guests — are invited to the bimah for a group aliyah on Shabbat morning.
With a year behind us, and the Pew Study findings fresh in our minds, what have we learned?
First, people love finding new ways to be Jewish together, especially in their homes. So much of our Jewish practice is home-centered; so why not teach people how to make Shabbat a meaningful part of their weekly lives?
We also learned what a great tool this is for marketing to new members and retaining current members. People in our area are now talking about Shabbat dinner — from what they’re serving to whom they’ve invited. We have even had lapsed members rejoin after sharing a Shabbat dinner in a fellow congregant’s home.
Five other congregations in our area and more than a dozen across the country have adopted the program, and it’s being shared with congregations around the country through periodic online webinars. We also will be exhibiting at the upcoming Reform movement biennial in San Diego in December.
What started as a one-synagogue tribute to my dad is now a living, engaging program, bringing families and congregations closer together, one Shabbas dinner at a time.
Debbie Albert is a third-generation member of Temple Sinai in Dresher. To learn how to bring “Guess Who’s Coming to Shabbas?” to your synagogue, email her at: GuessWhoShabbas@gmail.com .