Ruth Benamou experienced her first Shabbat Across America and Canada back in the 1990s, when she and her husband, Rabbi Yaacov Benamou, were living in Alabama. She sat at a table with an unaffiliated family. After that one Friday night meal, the family began attending Shabbat services regularly.
“We were blown away by the impact it had on people who were very unaffiliated with Judaism,” says Benamou, now the rebbetzin and Hebrew program director at the Jewish Rockville Outreach Center.
On March 7, JewishROC will be among the hundreds of congregations spotlighting the day of rest at the 18th-annual Shabbat Across America and Canada, sponsored by the National Jewish Outreach Program.
More than 900,000 Jews have participated in the Friday night event since 1996. The program’s aim, according to the NJOP website, is to unite Jews of all ages and affiliations, welcome those who are unaffiliated with Judaism and let congregations share their Shabbat experiences with others across the continent.
Six Washington-area congregations will participate, offering traditional rituals and services, meals, guest speakers and singers.
JewishROC has participated in Shabbat Across America for six years. Benamou said the experience lets observant Jews put themselves in the shoes of those who know little about Shabbat and Judaism as a whole, some of whom have never gone to a Shabbat service before. It also allows those familiar with Shabbat practices to explain them to newcomers step by step.
At JewishROC, the Shabbat Across America dinner will be traditional, with homemade challah and chicken soup, said Benamou. “The whole atmosphere is so uplifting, the food even tastes better.”
At Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Rabbi Susan Grossman is preparing for a guest appearance by Jewish musician Neshama Carlebach, who will participate in the service and give a presentation about “finding light in the darkness.” On March 8, Carlebach will lead the congregation in prayers, offer a d’var Torah and perform in a concert that night.
“When she sings she brings a bit of heaven down to earth,” Grossman said. The synagogue will also offer parallel tot Shabbat services and programs for older children that same night.
This is Beth Shalom Congregation’s 16th Shabbat Across America. For Grossman, the event represents the Jewish sense of unity.
“Here we’re identifying across communities and across borders, recognizing what we share,” she said. “One of the most beautiful things we share is Shabbat.”
Rabbi Linda Joseph of Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation in Ashburn said Shabbat Across America and Canada is a great opportunity for communities to get together to celebrate and learn about Shabbat in an open atmosphere.
“It’s is a great way for us to welcome people into our community,” which is part of the congregation’s mission, Joseph said.
Activities for the congregation’s event this year include a potluck dinner, a Jammin’ Shabbat service highlighted by an all-member band of professional and nonprofessional musicians, and an oneg service for those who want to meet and mingle afterward.
“We plan on continuing this event as long as it continues fulfilling the aim our congregation has and Shabbat Across America has,” she said.
For more information about Shabbat Across America and Canada, go to njop.org.