Friday, August 24, 2007

The blessings of the Sabbath


This is nice. I wish there were many more ladders to higher mitsvot observance for those who didn't grow up in religious homes.

In a go-go world, a young Jewish family finds joy in setting aside a day for rest and worship

Yonat Shimron, Staff Writer
RALEIGH - Friday afternoons before sundown, the McGhees zipper their laptops into their cases. They click off the TV and program their phones for voice mail. As they take their seats around the festive dining room table, Hunter and Stacey and their two daughters, Sydney and Jenna, take a big breath. And exhale.

It's Shabbat, or the Sabbath, a daylong respite that is one of the highest commandments of the Jewish faith. The McGhees are on a spiritual journey to plumb its depths, and they are learning to reap its blessings.

Hunter and Stacey are among 10 people at Raleigh's Congregation Shaarei Israel taking a class intended to pump up their Sabbath observance. So far, they've learned how to bake challah bread, cook traditional foods and arrange their workweek so they won't be interrupted on their day of rest.

Like many couples with two jobs and two children, the McGhees have found that the Hebrew Bible's oldest mandate -- to rest -- is also one of the most relevant to today's stressed-out, sleep-deprived families.

"Our weekends were always so dramatically short," said Hunter McGhee, 31, a Raleigh software consultant. "Ever since we've been doing this, the weekends feel longer and I feel refreshed."

After Friday night's leisurely meal, the McGhees get up Saturday morning and attend services at synagogue. Back at home, they eat lunch, take a nap and spend the rest of the afternoon at home, playing with their girls, ages 1 and 3.

They don't run errands. They don't go shopping. They don't ferry the girls to dance classes.

It sounds easy, but it takes a lot of preparation, especially since the McGhees are taking their cues from the Orthodox Jewish tradition. Jews observe the Sabbath to varying degrees, but the Orthodox are the strictest. Hewing to Jewish law, Orthodox Jews don't cook or drive or even switch on lights on the Sabbath. To make it work, discipline is key.

"We discussed in class that Shabbat preparations start on Sunday," said Sarah Rosner, one of the teachers at Congregation Shaarei Israel. Rosner, an Orthodox Jew, often begins the week by making a list of groceries she'll need. Tuesday, she might bake the bread and freeze it. Friday morning she'll cook the meats and vegetables.

Working toward a goal
For the McGhees, Shabbat is a work in progress. Since their marriage in 2000, the couple have been inching their way toward a deeper observance of Judaism. Stacey, who was born Jewish, met Hunter, a Methodist, while both were students at UNC-Chapel Hill. Though she envisioned she would marry a Jew, Stacey said, "You can't choose who you fall in love with."

Even before they married, the couple decided they didn't want two religions in their home. They chose Judaism. For four years, the McGhees attended Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, a Reform congregation that allows members to choose their degree of observance. But because Stacey's parents belong to Beth Meyer, Raleigh's Conservative Jewish congregation made more sense.

As Hunter began learning more about Judaism, the couple went deeper into Jewish tradition. Then the children came along. The girls love clinking their glasses of grape juice at the dining room table Friday night and getting dressed in their best clothes for synagogue on Saturday morning. They also appreciate the undivided attention they get from their parents Saturday afternoon.

Last month, Hunter formally converted. At the same time, he and Stacey made the first step toward keeping a kosher home. They use two sets of dishes now, one for meals with meat and one for meals with milk.

"It seems to me that the more I learn the more I enjoy the structure," he said. "It's a way of being mindful of God, and that's very fulfilling for me."

The advice they've gotten from rabbis and teachers is to go slow.

"Don't try to do it all at once," said Judy Stackhouse, one of the Shaarei Israel teachers. "There's always more to learn."

Honoring the faith
Recently, the couple began searching for kosher signs on the foods they buy at the supermarket. At the same time, they don't want to alienate either Hunter or Stacey's parents with their new lifestyle. Honoring their parents -- and continuing to share meals with them -- is essential for the couple.

Most important, they try to remember the spiritual aspects of Shabbat. When they gather at the table with its white tablecloth and fine china Friday nights, they go around and ask each other what they most appreciated during the previous week. The exercise is a way to keep mindful and thankful for what they have. Stacey might mention lunch with a friend or a movie the family saw. The point is to focus on spiritual matters.

"If you just lie around and relax you'll feel lethargic," Hunter said. "But after Shabbat I feel recharged. It's very spiritually uplifting at the same time that it's relaxing."

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