Revisioning Reform Shabbat Observance


More than a dozen years ago, the Reform Movement began a Movement-wide conversation about worship. It focused its attention on Friday evenings, and undertook to create services that were heartfelt, inspiring and community-building. In a mere handful of years, Erev Shabbat services were radically transformed, changing from somber to joyful and from passive to engaging.

Now is the time to step back and see what remains undone.

The time has come to vision a new approach to Shabbat morning worship, one that goes beyond Shabbat Torah Study and alternative minyanim. The majority of our synagogues have given up hope of ever having a regular congregational worship experience on Shabbat. Many rabbis and cantors have expressed their dissatisfaction with the status of Shabbat morning prayer. These services too often are overshadowed by weekly b'nei mitzvah experiences that focus more on the celebration of the boy or girl and less on Shabbat worship or synagogue community. The result is that congregational members become voyeurs rather than davaners. The best solution is public communal worship that all of us, and not just the b'nei mitzvah families, want to attend.

Worship, though, represents only one aspect of Shabbat observance. We know that in the absence of Shabbat, Judaism withers. More than ever, in our 24/7 culture, we need to embrace the Torah's mandate to rest. When work expands to fill all of our evenings and weekends, everything suffers, including our health. For stressed-out, sleep-deprived families, the Torah's mandate to rest looks relevant and sensible. During the week we should pursue our goals; on Shabbat we should learn simply to be. Research indicates that there are more closet Shabbat observers than previously thought. The time has come to create alive, tangible and visceral Shabbat experiences, similar to those experienced by our children at our summer camps. We need to approach Shabbat with the creativity that has always distinguished Reform Judaism. A Shabbat in which we emphasize the "Thou shalts" of Shabbat-candles and Kiddush, rest and study, prayer and community-rather than the "Thou shalt nots." Rabbis, Cantors, and Educators will guide us here, as they always do, but their role is to be supportive only. They already have far too much on their plate. The premise is that in our midst there are thoughtful and committed volunteer leaders who are excited by the prospect of reviving Shabbat and who will help redefine what Shabbat can mean in the lives of Reform Jewry. The time has come to provide Reform Jews with the support of a loving community so they can feel commanded without feeling coerced.

Therefore, the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:

Urge each member congregation to engage in a serious Movement-wide look at Morning Shabbat Worship and Shabbat observance by:

  1. Appointing a Shabbat Morning Task Force whose members will:
    1. Attend Shabbat morning services, both in their own synagogues and in other area congregations.
    2. Explore and implement the Union's new study resources for Shabbat and worship.
    3. Recommend new approaches to communal Shabbat worship, including b'nei mitzvah celebration, to their synagogue boards and staffs, and share this information with Movement leaders.
    4. Exchange ideas with other task force members through the Union sponsored listserve.
  1. Forming a Shabbat Chavurah that will be charged to:
    1. Observe Shabbat in a creative and authentic Reform Jewish way.
    2. Study about Shabbat and actively observe it weekly for three to four months.
    3. Share what they learn and experience with their synagogue leadership and the leadership of the Movement.
    4. Exchange ideas with other chavurot members through the Union sponsored listserve.
  1. Publicizing the Union's 52 suggestions on creative ways to celebrate Shabbat.