In 2013, South African Chief Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein called on his entire community to keep one Shabbat together. In an amazing display of communal unity, the South African community came together and held massive Shabbat dinners throughout the country. The central idea that animated Rabbi Goldstein's challenge was that Shabbat transcends the barriers that divide often the community and it is, therefore, an our opportunity to renew family and community life and build Jewish identity. In the wake of this South African communal initiative, an organization called the Shabbat Project was launched and now communities all around the world often host Shabbat Across ... events. As this is the Friday of Shabbat Across JDS, I wanted to share amended excerpts from a letter I had written to all those families who are participating in this program.
We hold a monthly campus-wide Kabbalat Shabbat service at our Lower School that is a highlight for many of our students as well as for me personally. The unbridled joy from the communal singing and dancing creates a special feeling for everyone in the Isadore and Bertha Gudelsky Performing Arts & Athletic Center on those Friday mornings.
I have a custom of blessing all of the students at the service after telling a short story. I recite the Priestly Blessing (Birkat Kohanim) that is also part of the Shabbat evening home ritual when we bless our own children. This fifteen-word blessing is the oldest surviving physical fragment of biblical literature, some 2,700 years old. It comes from the era of the First Temple, built by King Solomon and today is housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It is so old that it is not written in the Hebrew alphabet as we recognize it today, but rather in the ancient Semitic script, the first alphabet known to humankind. It is to my understanding the oldest liturgical formula still in regular use.
Rather than recite the blessing myself at Kabbalat Shabbat. I prompt all of the teachers, parents and grandparents who are present to recite the words themselves. For thousands of years, this formula was recited exclusively by the priests in the Israelite community. Then the rabbis came along and expanded the group of people able to say the blessing to include their numbers as well. Today, we need as many blessings as we can get and parents use these sacred words to bless their children. Therefore, at school, all of the adults bless all of our students. It is an honor to do so and a concrete manifestation of the care our entire faculty has for the students.
In the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, we all need as many blessings as possible, and particularly, to bless our children who represent our personal and communal future.