My digital Shabbat: Creating meaningful separation

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Shabbat for me has never been about whether I turned the lights on or off, drove a car or refrained from caring for my vegetable garden. I love the many rituals and trappings of our Ashkenormative Shabbat – especially challah – but the 39 prohibitions, not so much.

I believe Shabbat is about creating separation from daily routine. Separation can be as simple as eating different foods or wearing different clothing. For me, separation doesn’t have to mean unplugging from your devices; it can mean engaging with the digital world from a Jewish vantage point. And the abundance of creative, thoughtful and provocative digital Jewish content at our fingertips makes this part of the meaningful separation that I’m seeking.

My digital Shabbat isn’t a substitute for sharing the day with my temple community, family and friends. It’s a compliment that helps me observe tradition, study Torah and feel connected with the worldwide Jewish community.

That’s especially important these days, when distances from loved ones are often great, affiliation is in decline, and sharing the day with others isn’t always possible.

In the United Kingdom, a “minister of loneliness” has been appointed to counter the isolation that many people experience today. Judaism has long had a solution for this problem: Shabbat is a call for community.

Even if you are alone on Shabbat, it doesn’t have to be lonely – you can be richly supported by digital Jewish content from livestreams, podcasts, audiobooks, internet radio stations, websites, etc.

We are fortunate to live in a day when there is unlimited content for making Shabbat a treasure. Shabbat is a gorgeous opportunity for discovery, learning and reconnecting. Here are some online resources:

Observing Shabbat is central

I welcome my digital Shabbat with Kabbalat Shabbat services at 6 p.m. (https://www.centralsynagogue.org/worship/live_streaming) from Central Synagogue, in New York City, where the welcome to livestreamers is warm and genuine.

“Central Synagogue has what we believe to be the largest Jewish livestream in the world, reaching thousands of people each week in more than 108 countries,” said Chief Rabbi Angela Buchdahl. “We feel there is no greater mitzvah than sharing the messages from our bimah this way.” 

The large and talented team of rabbis and cantors never disappoints and frequently awes with amazing musical moments that you might expect to hear on Broadway, just a few avenues away. Life-cycle events, such as baby namings, are so well conducted, they might leave you verklempt (choked up). Services are available online or through the Jewish Broadcasting Service (JBS) on cable TV.

Many congregations livestream Kabbalat Shabbat services across the U.S. A simple search will find a listing of services.

Conservative Shabbat morning services are also livestreamed. Two of my favorites are from Park Avenue Synagogue (https://pasyn.org/webcast) and B’nai Jeshurun (BJs). Both services are livestreamed from New York City congregations, beginning at 9:30 a.m., but they have different approaches. Park Avenue Synagogue services have higher “production values” and a fabulous cantor, Azi Schwartz. By comparison, BJs (https://www.bj.org/spiritual-life/live) is like a smooth jazz concert that sooths and relaxes with a clergy ensemble that follows the traditional liturgy.

Contemporary Torah study and commentary

A simple search for “Torah podcasts” reveals more than 180 options for gathering Torah insights in one, two, five, 10 minutes or more. Torah podcasts come from diverse sources, including distinguished rabbis, scholars and every sect and movement imaginable.

I listen to the following podcasts because of their application of Torah to today’s issues:

The weekly podcast (http://rabbisacks.org) from Orthodox Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the U.K. from 1991 to 2013, delivers deep insights about one or two themes from the weekly Torah portion. Rabbi Sacks is the author of more than 30 books. He grounds his commentaries in historical Jewish thought and theology. Commenting on his podcast exclusively for Jewish Rhode Island, Rabbi Sacks said, “We have been humbled by the wonderful feedback on the podcast. Sharing Torah commentaries is a rich part of our oral tradition. The podcast makes my thoughts and reflections on the parashahavailable to people of all ages on the go anywhere in the world.”

Ten Minutes of Torah (https://urj.org/rabbi-rick-jacobs), a podcast by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, is a good starting point for a glimpse into the weekly Torah portion. Rabbi Jacobs’ messages focus on applying lessons of Torah to contemporary life. When Jewish Rhode Island asked about his reasons for doing the podcast, Jacobs said, “A podcast is the perfect format for telling unique, lively and engaging stories from and about our most sacred text, the Torah.” Rabbi Jacobs went on to say, “Everyone can feel at home in Jewish experiences.”

The Pardes from Jerusalem podcast offers more traditional content. A different faculty member from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, a Yeshiva focusing on lifelong learning, delivers a scholarly interpretation of the Torah portion each week. This is the best podcast I’ve encountered for understanding the weekly parashah.

In Parsha in Progress, Abigail Pogrebin and Rabbi Dov Linzer host a point-counterpoint program. This every-other-week podcast interprets a biblical story from the perspectives of a Reform Jewish author and an Orthodox rabbi and Yeshiva head. Expect lively and respectful conversations about bible personalities and the choices they made.

Cultural enrichment and free expression

Jews have a rich tradition of storytelling, sermonizing and entertaining – perfect subject matter for podcasts and audiobooks.

Unorthodox (https://www.tabletmag.com/author/unorthodox), presented by Tablet Magazine, which calls it “the world’s leading Jewish podcast,” features hosts Mark Oppenheimer, Liel Leibovitz and Stephanie Butnick chatting about Jewish news, and an interview with a Jew and a non-Jew. Guests are sometimes provocative figures – and always entertaining. But be aware that Unorthodox is irreverent at times and the hosts are quick to unleash f-bombs.  

Stories We Tell is a sweet way to usher in Shabbat, with short, heartwarming stories narrated by Reform clergy from across the country. Each story delivers a meaningful, but not overly weighty, message. The content is inclusive and family-oriented.

The Park Avenue Synagogue (Conservative) Weekly podcast usually consists of a recording of the previous Shabbat’s sermon by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, but some episodes come from the congregation’s vast archives of greatest sermons, which are superb. Occasionally, episodes are lectures from notable guests or musicians. Rabbi Cosgrove’s sermons are some of the best I’ve ever had the privilege to hear. Most sermons end with a round of applause. How unusual is that? His sermons are also available online; search using his name.

Audiobooks

Saturday afternoons feel like the perfect time for listening to audiobooks. My Shabbat reading list supports my objective of separation; I gravitate towards books by Jewish authors. Some of my recent favorites include:

“My Jewish Year, 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew,” by Abigail Pogrebin. A personal and revealing examination of the holidays from living through all the rituals associated with strict observance.

“Nine Essential Things I’ve Learned about Life,” by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Perhaps best known for his international bestseller, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Rabbi Kushner in “Nine Essential Things” explores questions he has contemplated over five decades in the rabbinate. He seeks to answer the age-old question of what it takes to live a good life.

“Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality and a Deeper Connection to Life – in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There),” by New England native Sarah Hurwitz. A former speechwriter for Michelle Obama, Hurwitz deeply investigates Judaism as an adult, finally understanding what she missed growing up.

A Jewish community without borders

Jews around the world share some of the same concerns. In the digital Jewish community, distance is not a barrier.

If you enjoy “This American Life,” you will probably enjoy the Israel Story podcast (https://israelstory.org/episodes), from PRX and Tablet Magazine. Hosted by Mishy Harman, Israel Story explores true stories about the lives and struggles of Israelis, regardless of faith, tradition or origin. You won’t find these people in the news, but they might leave an imprint on your consciousness and a greater appreciation for Israel’s diversity. From heartwarming to gobsmacking, profiles are marvelously crafted. Be prepared to not always recognize the Israel you thought you knew.  

The Jewish Views – The Jewish News (https://apple.co/382Nabt) is a monthly podcast with marvelous accents from across the pond, along with insights into Jewish life in the U.K., news, events, politics and opinions from the Jewish community. This podcast is a reminder that we are a community across oceans and without borders.

Finally, from Melbourne, Australia, 87.8 FM J-AIR Internet Radio (https://j-air.com.au/) delivers the latest Israeli music and Jewish news from around the world.  

MARC RUSSMAN (marc.russman@gmail.com) is a freelance writer on topics of Jewish interest.