Bring Back Shabbat!
Why, you probably didn’t even realize that it went away.
Approximately 15,000 college-aged young Jews (three percent of all college students) go on Birthright Israel trips each year, under the auspices of the OU and about a dozen other sponsoring organizations; the OU is one of the most popular providers of the trips. For many of the Birthright participants, the Shabbat they observe in Israel, highlighted by the Friday night meal, is the first Shabbat they have experienced. When they return to campus, will that lone Shabbat become a memory, or will there be an opportunity to repeat the joy of the day – the Oneg Shabbat?
Thanks to a new Orthodox Union Next Gen Division program, called “Bring Back Shabbat,” Birthright Israel alumni are being given the opportunity to invite their friends and fellow students on campus (whether they have been on Birthright or not) to a festive Shabbat dinner, paid for in full by “Bring Back Shabbat,” to the tune of $10 per student. Advice on preparing and presenting a Shabbat dinner are sent to the volunteers.
This initiative is particularly important because the “Birthright Next” program, to follow up on the original trip, has gone out of business.
Now wait – doesn’t “Bring Back Shabbat” sound like another OU program called “Heart to Heart,” which under the charismatic leadership of Hart Levine, and supported by NextGen, calls on volunteer hosts to present Shabbat meals on campus? Exactly so, and “Bring Back Shabbat,” also supervised by the extraordinary Mr. Levine, is a segment of “Heart to Heart” specifically focusing on Birthright alumni as the leaders.
Hart Levine provided the spirit; Rabbi Dave Felsenthal, Director of Next Gen, officially created the program and is providing the funding – still in its beginning stages but which last week produced $80,000 in one day, from previous supporters of “Heart to Heart” and various other sources, such as the students from “Heart to Heart” themselves.
Rabbi Dave, as he is known, and Hart hired a director for the program, Lily Lozovsky, who had already proven her skills with the OU’s Young Professional Program. She declares, “Bring Back Shabbat is a way to empower students who come home from Birthright Israel to not only seek out Jewish experiences but to create some of their own. I think the best thing is that we encourage each host to interpret and put their own spin on the rituals within the framework of tradition. Sometimes my conversations with students are just about reassuring them that, no, there aren’t strict guidelines and that yes, they can totally make Shabbat their thing to do with friends on campus and that we will provide them a coach to help them have a magical experience. The hope is that we can empower students to use our funding and support to make Shabbat dinner something personal and to make memories of hosting Shabbat dinners a highlight of their time on campus.”
Birthright Israel is open to students 18-26, but the Bring Back Shabbat program, has a younger demographic, 18-21, to concentrate on current college students, explains Hart Levine. The word about Bring Back Shabbat is spread by email, social media advertising, as in Facebook, both to attract the hosts and the guests. Targets of the campaign are not only alumni of the OU’s Israel Free Spirit/Birthright trips, but with the permission of the other Birthright Israel organizers, all Birthright Israel alumni on campus
Students from about 20 campuses have already applied, even as the program is still in the gearing up stage. They represent campuses such as University of Virginia, Harvard University, University of Chicago, Florida International University, University of Maryland, Baruch College of the City University of New York, Rutgers University, Chapman University, Bethel College, San Diego State University, Northeastern University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the State University of New York at Buffalo.
When Rabbi Dave heard that Birthright Next had ceased operations, he was originally quite “depressed” as he explained it, seeing the good work being done by Birthright being quickly forgotten or marginalized. But Rabbi Dave realized that “if we can get a formula to work, we can be very successful. And with Heart to Heart, we already had that formula. So we hired Lily, and we are our way.”
For the general website, see bringbackshabbat.org.
Thanks to the OU and its partners, for many college students Birthright Israel will not be a one-time experience. It will build on the Friday dinners, until hopefully, the Shabbat meal becomes a highlight in the lives of the participants in the program. And if the new program is to have a motto, it will certainly be, “Shabbat Shalom. Pass the Challah.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.