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As Laura Nash and her husband, Jack Greenberg, considered religious options when their sons were young, the sacredness of family Sabbath traditions in Judaism emerged as a big draw.
And so in 2000, Dr. Nash, who had been a nonpracticing Roman Catholic, converted to her husband’s native Judaism. From then on, she has observed the Jewish custom of lighting candles to usher in the Sabbath and has cooked a nice family meal for Friday evening.
“I like the fact that we have this way of stopping and celebrating, of resting and honoring God,” she says.
Dr. Nash, a school psychologist in central New Jersey, talked with the Monitor about the Fourth Commandment, which begins, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Her conversation is part of our series examining the ways ancient religious ideas like the Ten Commandments continue to matter in today’s world.
Dr. Nash hasn’t been one to miss a week of observance lest the tradition be lost. “It doesn’t have to be the fanciest meal,” she says. “The bottom line is [that being] thankful for light, food, and fruit brings you back to a state of gratefulness.”
The worshippers at Beth Judah Temple could be family. They arrive at dusk on a brisk autumn Friday with leisurely hugs, hellos, and a little something for the dinner table. It’s Shabbat – the Jewish Sabbath – at Laura Nash’s small jewel of a synagogue, nestled in a tired part of this beach town, where worshippers have gathered for more than a century. Dr. Nash and her husband, Jack Greenberg, who live in central New Jersey, often begin Shabbat here when visiting their vacation home nearby.
The couple feel a sense of “mission accomplished” once they arrive on Friday evening, having successfully dispensed with traffic, work, and the city pace. And having turned off their phones, finally, they step into the hushed 90-year-old sanctuary, its peaceful, glowing light enveloping. There they join two dozen fellow worshippers for an hour of psalms, chant, and prayer.
Dr. Nash, a school psychologist, talked with the Monitor about the Fourth Commandment, which deals with the Sabbath, as part of our series examining the ways ancient religious ideas like the Ten Commandments continue to matter in today’s world.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it (Exodus 20:8-11).
While quick to differentiate her family’s Reform practices from more traditional Jewish movements’, Dr. Nash nevertheless established firm rituals that anchored the family’s Sabbath when they were raising their children. They modified their customs as their family traveled, matured, and changed. She hasn’t been one to miss a week lest the tradition be lost: “You want to continue good habits,” she says.
From mixed faiths when they married 26 years ago, the couple considered a number of religious options when their sons were young. “We both wanted religion in our family – a religion we felt good about,” she explains. After considering some less theistic variations of church, they adopted his native Judaism. “Ethical monotheism,” Dr. Nash calls it. A nonpracticing Roman Catholic at the time, she converted in 2000. The sacredness of family Sabbath traditions was a big draw.
“I like the fact that we have this way of stopping and celebrating, of resting and honoring God,” she says. “So many things are complicated. This is like a little vacation.” She notes the imitation of God implicit in the celebration: “He rested and said, ‘This is good,’” she says, referring to Genesis 2:3.
“We are called to imitate the best qualities of God,” says Beth Judah’s Rabbi Ron Isaacs, who adds that it’s up to individuals to determine how to make the Sabbath special. “I never tell people what to do. Orthodox people wouldn’t be gardening on the Sabbath [as prohibited in Jewish law]. I wouldn’t be gardening on the Sabbath. But I’m sure some from Beth Judah would. People pick and choose how they’re going to live that Commandment.”
From the start, Dr. Nash has observed the Jewish custom of lighting candles to usher in the Sabbath and has cooked a nice family meal for Friday evening. She limited the extracurriculars for her three sons, now in their 20s, to a single sport, plus music and religious studies. They passed on travel sports teams, which would have placed an added pressure on the family, and on Boy Scouts, which met on Friday nights. She says, “You can’t be afraid to tell your kids, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ Families need time to be together.”
Since then, wherever the family goes, the Sabbath goes. At the farm vacations the couple took with their school-age sons, they’d light a pair of “traveling” candles at the dinner table, bringing some grape juice for the boys and wine for themselves. Now, with their children grown, Dr. Nash and her husband continue adapting, celebrating as a couple or with friends, even using battery-powered candles to withstand the wind at their beach home. When an unavoidable appointment takes them well into the evening on a Friday, the couple will still go home to light the candles and share a simple meal.
“It doesn’t take that long. It doesn’t have to be the fanciest meal. The bottom line is [that being] thankful for light, food, and fruit brings you back to a state of gratefulness,” Dr. Nash says.
Wherever they are, they say blessings over the candles, food, and wine in Hebrew, translating for a guest who might be there, and praying in part, “Come, let us welcome Shabbat. Thank you, God, for the mitzvah [commandment] of lighting the candles. May they shine upon us in love and peace.”
Whereas their larger, suburban synagogue back home gets into the necessities of education, training, and inquiry, the Beth Judah congregation is mellow. There might be Shabbat on the beach, open to the public. This evening, which marks the Sukkot holiday, there will be dinner after the service. It’s a casual, varied crowd, which might include a cashier from the local five-and-ten, a minister from a nearby Methodist church, or a one-time summer worshipper looking for a place to pray. At home, Dr. Nash says, “everyone is rushing off to soccer practice,” but here, the congregation feels like rest itself.
Dr. Nash likes the service, especially the Mourner’s Kaddish, which includes prayers not just for the recently deceased, but also for “those who lie in nameless graves.” “It reminds you you are a link in the chain. In 150 years, maybe no one will remember me, but these people – a [Jewish] nation – will remember me,” she says.
She also likes the fact that the congregation accepts her free-form practice of the faith. “Some people would not touch a light switch” on Shabbat, she says. “That is too rigid for me.”
Dr. Nash reserves Saturday for “what I really want to do.” There’s no professional work, and always something outdoors in recognition of “the gift of the earth” – a walk by the ocean, pulling some weeds in the garden, even cleaning up trash-strewn public areas. She counts bill paying as among her allowed activities: “I don’t feel like going to the bank is a crime. This makes me feel good; balancing my budget helps my family stay intact.”
As a psychologist in a public elementary school, Dr. Nash doesn’t bring religion to work, but she is all for religious traditions like the Shabbat for her students nonetheless. “What’s important for children is to have a sense of belonging – however you can belong,” she says. Few of the parents of her students are American-born, she explains, and many of the families come from cultures with rich traditions. When she sees that sense of belonging, she says simply, “It makes me happy for them.”
Part 5: ‘Remember the sabbath’: How one family lives the Fourth Commandment