Shabbat: we know it well. It’s our holy day of rest, a sign of the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people, and a time to reconnect with our families and communities after a long and busy work week. 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. These students see Shabbat as nothing less than a revelation, and they absolutely love it.
When it comes to Jewish connection, you cannot paint our entire student body with a single brush. Some of them have a long history of participation in Jewish youth groups or summer camps, others have faded memories from several years of Jewish day school or Sundays spent at Hebrew school, and still others have mastered only the basic details of their favorite Jewish holidays. Still, they all agree that Shabbat is exactly what they have been looking for, whether they knew it or not.
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 Shabbat makes such a profound impact on Millennials.
For starters, it forces them to unplug from technology, a requirement that is at once a shock to their systems as well as a total 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. If we’re honest with ourselves, every one of us can recount instances in which it has been difficult for us to disconnect, instances that have negatively impacted our relationships, as well as our ability to live in the moment.
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” that 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 only 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 that Millennials are so fascinated with Shabbat is its intrinsic ability to bring communities together and unite Jews around the world. Again, those of us who live in predominantly Jewish communities are quite familiar with the phenomenon of hosting perfect strangers for Shabbat. But my students often cannot fathom this heightened level of responsibility and brotherly love.
Throughout the Shabbaton experience, and multiple times 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 almost goes without saying that the institution of family has become weaker over the last 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.
One student watched in amazement as the young children at a Shabbat meal “engaged in the tradition,” making blessings, singing songs, and remaining at the table for the entirety of the meal. He later noted that it would have been total chaos if his younger brother and sister were put in a situation where they were told to relax sans technology. Of course, chaos exists within the families of the Shabbat observant as well. But Shabbat does have a way of bringing out the best in us and drawing our families together. It’s that power that Millennials find so magical and hope to wield themselves in order to imbue their lives with a sense of purpose they simply cannot find elsewhere.
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, where the entire Jewish nation becomes a nuclear family, where our “best selves” are in reach, and unending kindness and wholesome connection rule. Millennials love Shabbat because it’s the gift that keeps on giving inspiration, validation, and strength, and we must do everything in our power to ensure that they don’t have to imagine a life without it.
By Rabbi Yosef Edelstein
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein is an educator for MEOR at George Washington University, where he works to inspire, educate, and empower a new generation of young Jewish leaders.