Social conservatives constantly bemoan the erosion of traditional family life and morality. In their view, narcissism and materialism plague the American landscape.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of the Jewish Values Network, host of the television program “Shalom in the Home” on TLC and the acclaimed author of over 20 books, believes he has a solution – or at least the beginning of one. He wants millions of American families to join his new initiative and “Turn Friday Night into Family Night.”
“As America debates in this time of financial crisis how we can restore the values that made this country great,” Boteach told The Jewish Press, “in my opinion there’s nothing more important than recreating the family, creating real family values. And to do that you need family time.”
If Boteach’s dream comes to fruition, families across the country will spend two “unplugged” hours – no television, phones, or blackberries – together every Friday evening, with two guests around the table, discussing two meaningful issues or engaging in two family activities. He hopes that President Obama, who according to The New York Times greatly values family dinners, will also participate.
“Look,” Boteach argues, “Obama says he wants to change things. Now change doesn’t just mean change the economic policies. You have to change the root causes that got us into this economic mess. The number one cause is greed. Now greed is not an economic issue, it’s a spiritual issue . To fix that, you have to recreate families.”
Boteach envisions a monthly national lottery for families signed up to his initiative, with the winner joining the first family for dinner at the White House.
Boteach is not the only one excited about his project. Alan Colmes, former co-host of the Hannity & Colmes TV show, told The Jewish Press he thinks “Turn Friday Night into Family Night” is a “wonderful idea” and praised the program’s “message of families devoting time to be with each other, inviting friends over, and focusing on their friendship and caring for each other.”
Lisa Oz, a New York Times best-selling author and frequent co-host of “The Dr. Oz Show” on Oprah & Friends’ XM radio telecast, was even more enthusiastic. “I think it just brings to the forefront the idea that a family is priority. It’s a time when you choose to be together, to talk together, to understand what’s going on with every member over the course of the week. A lot of families – we don’t – but a lot of families will actually have a television on even if they’re eating together, so there’s no real communication.”
She added, “Shmuley has often said that it doesn’t have to be a religious thing – it’s just a values thing – but I like the idea of keeping the conversation at an elevated level, making it really about something more than just eating. There’s an awareness and gratitude.
“We’re not Jewish, but we spend a lot of time with different Jewish friends at Seders and that whole idea of the cup for Elijah during Passover – I love that idea. It’s like inviting the Divine or a spiritual level into the evening, and I think that’s really lovely.”
Oz said that busy schedules unfortunately prevent her and her husband, Dr. Mehmet Oz – who often appears as a health expert on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” – from designating every Friday night for themselves and their four children. Nonetheless, she said they both make a point of regularly scheduling family dinners. Reminiscing on her own upbringing, Oz said, “I think for our generation spending time around the table was a time when our parents really could communicate their values to us without even making it a conscious thing . I think it was a really big part of my upbringing, and I think this generation is losing something because we don’t do it as frequently.”
Boteach knows that Shabbos Friday night dinners are a unique inheritance of the Jewish people. But he believes Jews should share their “gifts and treasures” with the rest of the world. “The question is: Who will give America its values? Will it be specifically Christian values or will the Jewish people finally have a seat at the table?”
He continued: “I have hosted tens of thousands of non-Jews at my Shabbos table over the years in Oxford, and here in the New York area and in New Jersey, and they’ve always said to me, ‘Gosh, why don’t we do this?’ ”
Boteach’s idealism of sharing Judaism’s light with the wider world contains an element of pragmatism as well. He argues, “How can we inspire young [secular] Jews to want to take their tradition seriously if that tradition, in their opinion, has no outside reach, has no ability to impact on the wider world, is basically irrelevant?… Rather than always trying to bring young Jews back to the fold, why don’t we bring Judaism to them? Why don’t we mainstream these Jewish ideas?…
“People say, ‘What do you need Jews and Judaism for anymore? The Jews gave the world a lot of important things like God but that was a long time ago.’ That’s why it’s so difficult to get young Jews to take pride in their heritage, because they don’t see that the Jewish people have any impact. I think the time has come for us to be a light unto the nations, and I think the idea of insulating ourselves away from the world when 80 percent of Jews are secular we’re going to lose them and we can’t.”
Boteach said that “Turn Friday Night into Family Night” is just the first of many national initiatives he hopes to launch through the Jewish Values Network. Commercials promoting “Turn Friday Night into Family Night” will soon start airing on several cable channels, and Boteach hopes one million Americans will sign up through his website, FridayIsFamily.com, by year’s end.