One of the most fundamental traditions for Jewish families is welcoming Shabbat (the Sabbath) each Friday night. Jews gather together to say prayers over Shabbat candles, wine and traditional braided challah bread.
So when Ann Sablosky and Stephen Rockower’s children began heading away for college several years ago, they started looking for ways to include them — virtually. The family still lights candles together each Friday, but now they do it via Skype.
“It’s a way of keeping the family together and keeping the traditions alive,” Rockower says. “One of the things that we’re supposed to do is welcome the Sabbath and bring it in and have the family together.”
One recent Friday night at the family’s home in Bethesda, Md., two iPads and a laptop shared the kitchen counter with Shabbat candles, challah and wine. Sablosky and Rockower were joined by their daughter Ellen in Seattle, their son Harry in South Carolina and their son Paul in Kazakhstan.
Sablosky’s father, Norman, attended in person, while Sablosky’s sister, Jill Sablosky, called in from Texas. Scruffy, the family dog, sat waiting for his piece of challah bread.
“I think it’s marvelous — the new technology,” says Norman, also known as Poppy among his grandchildren. “It’s very nice to talk to them as well as see them.”
One by one, relatives connected by video and by phone, each one sharing details from the day or plans for the night. Ellen, in Seattle, was just finishing up her lunch. Paul, in Kazakhstan, was just waking up at 5:20 a.m. local time.
Once the entire family was assembled, Ann Sablosky lit the Shabbat candles and recited a blessing in Hebrew and in English with her daughter Ellen. Stephen Rockower offered the blessing over the wine, and Paul Rockower recited the blessing over the bread. The ritual concluded with a blessing of the children, offered by their father and punctuated with kisses for each one.
“It’s a great way, when I’m really far from home, of connecting with the people who are the closest to me,” says Paul, who travels for his work with the State Department’s American Music Abroad program. (The group he’s touring with was recently on Blue Grass Country. A YouTube video of them can be viewed here.) “Making the effort is a way of strengthening the bonds or strengthening the traditions.” Paul’s sister, Ellen, says the weekly tradition sets her family apart from many others.
“I think it’s a bond that my family has that we make a point to call each other and connect as a family on Friday night,” she says.
Harry, the youngest member of the family, says the family ritual is something he always looks forward it. As for why it continues week after week, Harry refers to a favorite musical of many Jewish families.
“To quote Fiddler on the Roof, ‘Tradition!'” he says. “It just is, always has been and always will be.”