Shabbat. We know it well. It’s our holy day of rest, a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, and a time to reconnect with our families and communities after a long and busy workweek. It is truly a gift that keeps on giving, week after week, and many of us couldn’t imagine our lives without it.
Through my work as an educator for MEOR at George Washington University, I have noticed that for those who grew up without Shabbat as a constant in their lives, this new experience provides an unparalleled opportunity to plug in to Jewish heritage and identity, as well as a much-desired release from worldly distractions. It reaffirms their faith in family, community, and humanity, and allows them to make sense of their own thoughts and feelings.
By design, Shabbatons are built in to MEOR’s semester-long Maimonides Fellowship program, and students often request to return to our community in Silver Spring, Maryland, to revisit the experience by spending Shabbat with my family in smaller groups for an “even more authentic feel.”
In their own words, these Shabbat experiences are “life changing” and transcend the on-campus Shabbat dinners to which they have become accustomed. There are many reasons.
For starters, Shabbat makes such a profound impact on Millennials because it forces them to unplug from technology, a requirement that is at once a shock to their systems as well as a thrill to their souls.
A quick Google search yields tens of formal studies that detail the socially and psychologically destructive effects of our addiction to mobile technology. Following a recent Shabbaton, one of my students couldn’t get over the fact that turning her phone off allowed her to “absorb life, reflect on the week, interact with peers, learn something new, and fully relax.” She noted that restricting herself in this way opened the door to “an abundance of freedoms” she would not have experienced otherwise.
Another student echoed the sentiment, noting that with no phone to check or other distractions, he was able to “just walk around and have engaging conversations with everyone” – meaningful social interaction that is often lacking when mobile technology is on hand.
Yet another student commented that by disconnecting from electronics, it felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders and he had been transported to a stress-free place, a statement I found equally sad and beautiful. One can imagine the pressure he must feel on a daily basis to stay connected and how relieved he must have been to discover a weekly antidote.
Another reason Millennials are so fascinated with Shabbat is its intrinsic ability to bring communities together and unite Jews around the world.
Throughout the Shabbaton experience, and frequently thereafter, students express their disbelief regarding the sheer number of people in the community observing Shabbat together as well as the lengths to which they all go to be hospitable to people they have never met before, simply because the strangers are also Jews in need of Shabbat accommodations.
At first, they feel as though they slipped into an alternate universe, but as they come to better understand the rationale behind the actions, they become inspired to mirror the generosity and kindness on display. They yearn to find a way to make someone else feel as comfortable and connected as they feel in the house of a complete stranger. An instant member of the family, thanks to Shabbat.
Which brings me to the final reason: Shabbat’s ability to strengthen Jewish families. It is almost a cliché to note that the institution of family has become weaker over the past few decades. Unfortunately, this decline is just as prominent in the Jewish world. While most of the students I encounter have loving parents and siblings with whom they enjoy healthy relationships, the sight of a family doing anything together stands out as truly remarkable.
Additionally, the fact that Shabbat observance, a series of restrictions and demanding tasks, makes the family stronger and more cohesive is that much more impressive to the uninitiated.
In a world where everyone is connected by technology but no one feels like a member of a real community, where everyone is compelled to share but no one truly has anything of substance to add to the seemingly endless conversation, and where the sanctity of family life is all but forgotten, Shabbat offers Millennials, and every one of us, an answer.
Shabbat is an opportunity to put life on hold for just long enough to recharge our humanity, develop meaningful bonds through kinship and worship, and explore where we came from in order to decide where we are going as individuals, families, and communities.
Millennials love Shabbat because it’s a window into a world they never knew was possible. We must do everything in our power to ensure they don’t have to imagine a life without it.