A gift we can’t afford to ignore

As we pack away the cheesecake from Shavuot (or, in my case, leave it out so everyone can pick at the last few pieces), I can’t help but reflect on the significance of the last three days. Significant because I witnessed so many children sitting in shule around the bimah as the 10 Commandments were being read, and then lining up for their ice-cream soon after. I also noticed the numerous families attending the annual Shavuot dinner. These events made me think of the concept of family and the Jewish ideals and values that focus on connecting to family and, by extension, to community. Whether we admit it or not, we all crave social connections. Be it with family, friends, colleagues, various sporting, cultural or religious communities, these connections play a crucial role in our everyday lives and the lives of our children, no matter how old or young they may be. Whilst it may be unique to Shavuot to offer ice-cream to children (and adults young at heart) or provide dinners with inspiring speakers to families, the truth is, the Jewish calendar is filled with events that are designed to strengthen family connections. It is no coincidence that the Jewish year is celebrated around the family table. The family is a prominent feature in Jewish living, which may explain why all the laws and customs established and created to enhance Jewish living were designed to bring the family, and community, together.

The very first book of the Torah, Bereishit, is all about family. The first of our patriarchs, Avraham, is so called because, “he shall be a father of a multitude of nations” (17:5). Contained in this book are the stories of challenges and triumphs faced by couples, parents, and siblings, and we can learn a whole lot about family relationships from each of these stories. The emphasis on family is a strong Jewish institution that has been passed down since then. So strong is this tradition, even if we are not directly related, we still consider others to be very much part and parcel of our family. We often talk about the Moriah Family, which includes not just the students that attend Moriah, but all the siblings, parents, grandparents, even graduates who are related, as well as all staff members who, like family, are also responsible for the wellbeing and welfare of our students. Our value system views family as an integral part of a strong society, so it is important that we, as individuals and as a community, invest time and effort in creating strong family networks.

One of the foremost pre-state Zionist thinkers, Asher Ginzburg (1856-1927), better known as Ahad Ha’am, famously stated that, “more than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.” This is as relevant today as it was back then. Shabbat, as an obligation, mentioned 107 times throughout the Torah, is obviously an important mitzvah. While everyone observes Shabbat in their own way, it is not just the regulations and prohibitions we should focus on. Shabbat is also a time for family, a time to connect, and a time to appreciate life in general. Ahad Ha’am was saying that by observing Shabbat as a time to connect with family, we are guaranteeing that, as a community, we will remain strong because our foundation (our family) is strong. Every seven days, we have the opportunity to reconnect with our family and friends. This past weekend, we had an extra two days to do just that, and it is this aspect of Shabbat (and Yom Tov), that is so precious.

No one said that connecting on Shabbat is easy. Going to shule every week, especially if we are schlepping our children, preparing for the Shabbat meals and cooking and cleaning can be a struggle, but those who invest in this reap the rewards, and the rewards are definitely worth reaping. Connecting with old friends and meeting new friends each week (or fortnight) on a Friday night or Saturday morning in shule (around the kiddush table), celebrating with them or being there for them enriches our lives and the lives of those who we befriend. Spending quality time with our families around the Shabbat table, talking to members of our families face to face, is a gift we can’t afford to ignore.

Each year, I spend time with new non-Jewish members of staff to discuss some of the more important Jewish laws and customs that may be unfamiliar to them working in a Jewish environment. Whenever I talk about Shabbat and I explain that for a period of 25 hours, my family members do not touch their mobile phones, they always look shocked and often respond with, “I wish my family did that”. I know how hard it is to try and encourage teenagers to spend even a few minutes with their phones not attached to their bodies, but even having a rule that at the Shabbat table, even for an hour, there should be no sign of a mobile phone (and this applies to parents and guests as well), the quality of any interaction and connection that takes place is far more meaningful and appreciated.

We often reinforce how important it is to maintain a healthy lifestyle. We need to balance a healthy diet with some physical exercise (I’m not sure cheese blintzes qualifies as a healthy diet or balances out a short walk to shule). However, in addition to food and exercise, we also need to maintain social connections. Research has proven that loneliness is on the rise and that a lack of social connection can be even more harmful to our health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. As our lives get busier trying to strike a balance between everything we have to do, it is easy for our social connections to fall by the wayside. But connecting with others is a crucial ingredient in assisting us to find that healthy balance. We are told that social connections can lower anxiety, help us regulate our emotions, lead to higher self-esteem, and actually improve our immune system. So, in neglecting our need to connect, we put our own health at risk.

Ironically, we use technology to make sure we stay connected and it’s easier now than it ever has been. However, the screens on our devices are also disconnecting us from ourselves and others. Wi-fi alone is not enough for us to fulfil our social needs, we need to have face-to-face interaction as well. We need to work out how to use technology to enhance our connection to others, not replace it. Shabbat and festivals are the perfect antidote to using technology, simply because we are not permitted to use it. As challenging as this may be, it genuinely enhances face-to-face conversations and creates a much stronger connection.

Maintaining social connections does not mean we have to make friends with everyone we meet or with every student in class. Our need for human connection will look different for each person. For some, always being with friends or family is important, and for others, having only one or two friends is all that is needed. Some need to constantly be in the presence of other people and for many, a weekly or monthly catch up is all that is required.

As scary as it may sound, the next major festivals we celebrate won’t begin until September, with Rosh Hashanah, followed by Yom Kippur and Sukkot. We don’t have to, nor should we have to, wait until then to celebrate with friends and family around the table. Instead, let’s look forward to next Shabbat and use it as an opportunity to catch up with old friends and possibly meet with new friends around the kiddush table. More importantly, let’s make the time to ensure that we reconnect with our own family and do our bit to strengthen our community.

And speaking of connecting with family, we have just confirmed Friday, 9 September as the date for this year’s Moriah Shabbat at Central Synagogue. We are planning a huge Friday night, with students from our ELCs all the way through to Year 12 leading the service. This is the perfect opportunity to connect with and celebrate with the gantze (whole) Moriah mishpochah, and we encourage parents, siblings, grandparents, and all other family members to join us. Please diarise this date, add it to your calendar, share the news with the rest of the family and look out for more details in the coming weeks.   


About the author

Ronnen Grauman is the Acting Head of Jewish Life and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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