The American City Diner is located on Connecticut Ave, a few blocks from my home in Washington, DC. Owned by Jeffrey Gildenhorn, a native-born Washingtonian, the diner requently has something noteworthy to say on its billboard. Sometimes the message is a political one that speaks to the countless politicos who drive by every day ("The Future is Now, Reach Across the Aisle"), or more diner-like ones ("Breakfast all Day, Birthday Parties"). The message to the left that appeared a few weeks ago ("Enjoy Shabbat Here") drew my attention for obvious reasons and got me to thinking, which my wife Renée likes to say, is always a dangerous thing.
I am going to ask you for feedback on this one, because I need your help to think this through.
You may be aware of the recent Pew research report,which depending upon your reading of it, represents:
1) a confirmation of the decline of Amercian Judaism
2) a flawed survey, or
3) an opportunity to reach out to Jews who reject denominational affiliations, yet express faith ("I'm spiritual but not religious") and pride in being Jewish.
Because I'm a hopeful kind of guy, I am most drawn to the third conclusion. In contrast to the Jack Werthheimer School of Doom and Gloom (note: can't we embrace BOTH global consciousness and tribal allegiances?), my impulse is to rest assured that 4000 years of evolution from Biblical Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism to ?? is foundation enough to withstand all the concerns of what modernity presents us with.
Here's my question. Who are the Jews that are enjoying Shabbat at the American City Diner and what does being Jewish mean to them? Some, I surmise, are Reform Jews, for whom spending money on Shabbat does not present an issue. For that matter, let's be honest and assume that some Conservative (with a big "C") Jews are eating there as well.
What about the rest? Are some of them unaffiliated non-shul goers who fall into the above third category? "Spiritual but not religious", who are among the 94% of the Jews surveyed who expressed pride in being Jewish.
Here's my idea, and it is based on successful models of "keruv", of Jewish outreach based on going to where the people are (i.e. Chabad rabbis' work on college campuses, which is how my rebbe Zalman Schacter-Shalomi and Shlomo Carlebach were deployed in the 1950's) The idea is to approach the owner Jeffrey Gildenhorn with the possibility of displaying a sign that reads: "Enjoy Shabbat Here - The Rabbi is In". Perhaps he might set aside a section of the restaurant on Shabbat afternoon (there goes my nap) for people to drop in, eat, shmooze, and talk about what it means to be a Jew. To pose some questions - How can we build a Jewish future together? Is there importance in securing a Jewish future?
What questions would you ask? And how might I approach Jeffrey Gildenhron with this idea? If the Pew people had talked to you, what woukd you have wnated them to know?
When replying, please do so on the website (as well as to me offline if you wish) so others can see your response. Thank you in advance for your thoughts and suggestons. In the tradiiton of Avraham Avinu, who according to the midrash interrupted his visit from G!d in this week's parsha to attend to the needs of hungry travellers, I wish you Shabbat Shalom. And if you happen to be in the DC area, "Enjoy Shabbat Here". (Or for that matter "asher hu sham" - wherever you may be)
I am always delighted when someone reacts to something that I have said with "I never knew that!"
Sometimes my reaction includes a mix of astonishment and dismay. The astonishment comes from having the immediate thought, "Really? I thought everyone knew that", and the dismay from "How could that be? What a loss that you never knew that."
For example, during the Minyan Oneg Shabbat study session on Leil Tikkun Shavuot (yes, it has been a while since my last post), I quoted this passage from the Talmud: "In the world to come, each of us will be called to account for all the things G!d put on earth which we refused to enjoy." This elicited an immediate response: "It says what? That we're supposed to enjoy all that life has to offer. That's Jewish? I never knew that!"
The woman shared with me in private that she thought that Jews are supposed to suffer and to do without. I was both astonished and saddened that something as definingly Jewish had never been communicated to her, and if it had, she had not been able to integrate that truth into her life.
Here's another example. Last week I gave a drash during which I talked about my love for gardening, and specifically talked about composting. I shared this lovely passage from Rabbi Balfour Brickner's (z"l) book Finding G!d in the Garden:
"...there always seemed to be a lot of garbage. What to do with it? For years we did what most people do: we threw it out...(into) a garbage can...electric disposal. Frankly I never gave the matter a second thought. That was what one did with garbage. It was only when I began to garden that my postculinary habits changed radically. Garbage...took on new meaning for me - and new life. In fact, that is exactly what happens to it when it is used in the garden: it takes on new life. Put differently and much more to the point, what seems dead lives - again."
After quoting this passage I punctuated it by saying "Mechayei HaMaytim, the One who restores life to the dead." After services a woman thanked me, saying "I've never been offered a metaphor for the phrase "Mechayei HaMeytim" that worked for me. Thank you."
Mechayei HaMeytim" - the quality of the Divine as the One who restores life. Wait a moment, this woman had fifty years of Hebrew school, synagogue going, study sessions, and book reading and it wasn't until a few sentences about composting that she gained insight into this seminal and theologically difficult phrase? I felt blessed to have been the messenger - and astonished and dismayed. Astonished at the reminder that some of us chant words which we have no understanding or relationship to. And dismayed that we, and I certainly include myself, go through so many daily rituals without introspection or reflection.
That is something that I did know.
It's what to do about it that is the constant challenge.
Mark Novak is a "free-range" rabbi who lives in Washington DC and works, well, just about everywhere. In 2012 he founded Minyan Oneg Shabbat, home to MOSH (Minyan Oneg Shabbat), MindfulMOSH (Jewish mindfulness gathering), and