Oasis in Time: A LifeTown Shabbaton

The hustle and bustle of the week released in a communal exhale on Friday, February 2. Young and old, families and volunteers, welcomed Shabbat and the annual Friendship Circle Shabbaton. Kabbalat Shabbat services kicked off a full Shabbat weekend full of singing, spiritual energy, and respite from the week.

The weekend provided an oasis in time for the Shakhnovich family of Hillside, who usually spend Shabbat at home, and during the winter they are usually stuck indoors. Instead, they were among over 220 people who joined the Fabulous Friday Night Dinner, including children, teen volunteers, parents, grandparents, singles and couples, and among them, members of JSDD, who are becoming regulars at Friendship Circle Shabbat dinners.

The random seating and serene atmosphere led to unexpected interactions through the evening, as people who might not otherwise ever have met opened up to one another in the spirit of Shabbat.

“Being able to be at a Shabbat program where we felt welcome and accepted and where my kids really felt part of something, especially something Jewish is really special. It’s something we don’t have on a regular basis,” said Adira Shakhnovich, who attended with her husband, her two children, and her mother. 

As children drifted to the playground and gym, featured speaker Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, author of two books, Reaching for God and Mission Possible: Living with Higher Purpose, addressed the true meaning of tolerance. The crowd drank in his words as well as his demeanor. Speaking his uniquely quietly calming manner only contributed to the incredible ambiance.

For families who are often quite stressed, a certain calm descended on Friday night and lasted through Havdalah. “Traditionally Shabbat is meant to be a taste of the World to Come, and that we are offered this Shabbat. If the goal of Shabbat is to focus inward and upward, the weekend was really a success,” said Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum, CEO of LifeTown and Friendship Circle.

Those who stayed all weekend breathed in as much as they could. Children played in the playground and rode bicycles in the shops area; parents, families, and volunteers had time to relax together and even make new friends.

“There were so many people watching the kids, I felt I could really relax in a way I normally can’t when I take the kids to play. And on top of that, we got to really enjoy a Shabbat meal,” said Shakhnovich. She and her husband and her mother took turns checking on her two children, ages 3 and 6, but she said, “I just was not as frantic as I usually am, worrying, will it be safe, will it be ok? This is the place where my children are safe and happy and where people appreciate them, understand them, and love them for who they are. We are really grateful for Friendship Circle!”

Parent Shmuly Lieberman led some of the prayers and Rabbi Gurkow addressed multiple topics throughout Shabbat. Saturday night eventually arrived and in a soulful Havdalah led by Shmuly, families gathered in the LifeTown Shoppes, with the lights dimmed, to say goodbye to Shabbat and try to hold on to its sweetness and its spice. Many families stayed a second night, enjoying pizza and pool time Saturday night at the Westminster Hotel.

For the Shakhnovich family, the weekend offered an added bonus: an opportunity to experience staying away from home. “It was so good for the kids to stay in a hotel in a safe and controlled way!”

The weekend was also a joy for volunteers who came.

“We haven’t had a quiet Shabbat in a long time,” said longtime volunteer Eileen Rothman of West Orange, who attended the Shabbaton with her husband Murray. “The singing, the camaraderie, the ruach – it was so spiritual.” She loved having a chance to meet new people and spend a relaxed weekend getting to know them.

Rothman also appreciated Gurkow’s talk on tolerance. “It really resonated. In today’s world, people often shut you down without actually listening. I appreciated his approach of respecting other people’s points of view.”

As families departed, they were already asking about the next Shabbaton.

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