Stop the Excuses — Just do it!

A really nice woman I’d never met walked up to Ralph and I on the street in another part of the city today as we were out on a small outing with our children. She told us she had been reading our blog and the article written about the New Sabbath Project and wanted to start one in her own home. We hear this a fair bit – and quite frankly are always pleasantly surprised since we never know who’s reading the site.

So back to this woman — she wanted to start a New Sabbath Project herself but hadn’t done it yet. What we heard from her is not uncommon. There was a hesitation around how to actually get started. What did we cook? Simple or complex? Did we really have total strangers come into our home? Did we really do it every Friday? In other words — “this all sounds really overwhelming and more than I can probably manage.” The result? Instead of just doing it — even sometimes — many of us end up NOT doing it — at all.

Following that conversation I decided to revisit the blog written for our site by guest blogger and writer Luke Murphy.

Luke uses the laws of physics to describe the difficulty associated with just getting something like this started — he writes …“it takes more effort to start something moving than to keep it moving.” He continues by writing “So it is with anything we do: the hard part is overcoming the inertia of an object at rest, which means getting off the couch and committing to the job. Once you’ve defeated the fridge-sized fire-breathing lizard that is the Coefficient of Static Friction, his cousin, the Coefficient of Dynamic Friction, will seem like a sleepy gecko on a hot day.”

The New Sabbath Project is a community building exercise – simply by having people over for dinner — a few extras included of course that deepen the experience. I’ve had guests call it a salon and dialogue over dinner. It’s all accurate. Luke is right when he writes “putting on a dinner is one of those things like working out regularly…you know you ought to do it but today’s not ideal…Those excuses are the Coefficient of Static Friction sitting on your chest, his scaly haunches pressing you into the couch. Static Friction likes you to keep things theoretical, aspirational, potential – anything other than real. Static Friction cannot be reasoned with, bargained with, or met half way. He has to be pushed aside and flung into the dark corner where you lost the battery cover for the remote. His greatest fear is action…When you know you need to put on a dinner – not a theoretical some-day-we-must dinner, but a real event with real people – the best first step is to email or phone your first choice of guests and ask them.”

I am thrilled to report he and his amazing partner Isabella have indeed begun hosting larger dinners and I’m equally thrilled he calls on others to do the same when he writes “Host a dinner. Invite a combination of friends and newcomers. Ask the guests to bring some food: it’s less work and less cost for you and gives them something to take pride in. Repeat, whenever you can.”

Finally, Luke writes and we concur: “One odd characteristic of the Coefficient of Static Friction: he gets lighter the more often you fling him off your chest.”

If you’d like to know how you or someone you know could host one without completely stressing out, get in touch and/or check out the website.

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Lose Your Watch on Your Next Holiday

There has been a lot written in recent years about the need to “unplug” on holiday and how to do it — and the fact that so few of us do it (present company included). I can say that I can generally avoid checking work emails on holidays but I stay connected for family matters. But I tried something different on the last two family vacations I had this past summer and I have to say, I think it had quite an impact on reducing both kid, daddy and mommy meltdown moments. I removed my watch — a big step for someone who lives a life ruled by time — some call it Type A personality — I actually think it’s a function of big city living combined with the perpetual struggle for work life balance. As a mother of two young children who must work out of the home, this is particularly true. You know — kids must be up by this time to get them to school by this time to make it to the office by this time to get home in time to have enough time to spend a little time before bedtime. Phew! No wonder so many of us are frazzled, stressed, time obsessed and usually burnt out by the time we take time for a holiday (and we know many Canadians don’t even take that time) or heaven forbid — a weekly sabbatical to reflect, recharge and rejuvenate, as we advocate in this site. I must say, that leaving my watch on the counter as opposed to my wrist during that time was incredibly liberating. Not only did my days feel less rushed with my family, it also somehow naturally reduced the sense of urgency around checking emails etc. Having no real sense of time helped us be more present instead of constantly wondering what we needed to do next — helped us build our fence around sacred space and time — something we know so few of us do at home in and/or with our own communities. Who knew? The trick is, can we or should we wean ourselves off the watch OFF holiday hours? Perhaps it’s worth a try.

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Taking Rest on the Road

We took the New Sabbath Project on the road over the last two weeks — well not intentionally — it’s just that we took a long overdue family vacation/sabbatical — time to rest, rejuvenate and reflect. We went on a driving tour of our marvelous country out to the east coast. On that trip we inadvertently introduced a version of New Sabbath to old friends that have understandably (as non-Jews) have never been introduced to the idea – even the pluralistic kind that we do.

We brought the food and asked my friend who is a wonderful baker to attempt my challah recipe (see photo below – fantastic). While we didn’t want to introduce the blessings as it wasn’t our home and they weren’t Jewish — my challah baker ended up asking for a blessing given a recent string of unfortunate events in her life — so we decided to try out a milder version of what we do at home.

A friend’s first time challah — for hosting a first time New Sabbath Project

In doing some personal blessings around the table — an uncomfortable “consciousness” practice for those unaccustomed to such things — we decided to explain why we did these Friday night gatherings/feasts as a community-building excercise in the first place. In talking about how disconnected and disengaged we felt we were from our neighbours — our communities — that we felt these dinners helped us engage our communities on a deeper level — dialogue over dinner — with a spiritual and/or religious and/or cultural component that somehow deepened the conversations. We figured the disconnect we feel was a function of big city living — but our friends who live in both rural and smaller urban settings said this was a problem in their communities as well. Quite simply, no one feels like getting to know each other or if they do, they’re too intimidated to make the first move.

These last two weeks have certainly been an amazing time for rest, rejuvenation and reflection for my family and myself. A time to reconnect to family and friends and also to ideas that often get lost in the fog of extensive to-do and to-pay lists that await at home. It has reinforced the idea that people everywhere are craving closer connections to their communities and a little more sacred space to allow for their own rest, rejuvenation and reflection.

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The New Sabbath Equation – Guest Blog by Luke Murphy

Not many laws of physics can improve your life. This one can:

The coefficient of static friction is greater than the coefficient of dynamic friction.*

What this means is: it takes more effort to start something moving than to keep it moving.

If you’re pushing a car, the heart attack will come during those first furious shoves while you’re trying to make it start rolling. At that stage, your enemy is the coefficient of static friction. As soon as the wheels are turning, you can amble down the street, pushing the car before you while calling out cheery greetings to passers by. Why? Because now you’re working against dynamic friction, a puny force by comparison.

So it is with anything we do: the hard part is overcoming the inertia of an object at rest, which means getting off the couch and committing to the job.Once you’ve defeated the fridge-sized fire-breathing lizard that is the Coefficient of Static Friction, his cousin, the Coefficient of Dynamic Friction, will seem like a sleepy gecko on a hot day. Coefficient of Static Friction

The New Sabbath Project is about building community by having people over for dinner. Putting on a dinner is one of those things like working out regularly, reading Moby Dick, or writing the blog post that you’ve promised: you know you ought to do it but today’s not ideal, maybe when the weather improves, we don’t have enough plates, etc etc. Those excuses are the Coefficient of Static Friction sitting on your chest, his scaly haunches pressing you into the couch.

Static Friction likes you to keep things theoretical, aspirational, potential – anything other than real. Static Friction cannot be reasoned with, bargained with, or met half way. He has to be pushed aside and flung into the dark corner where you lost the battery cover for the remote. His greatest fear is action.

Any physical action will give you the strength to raise Static Friction’s leaden lizard loins from off your wheezing chest. When you know you need to put on a dinner – not a theoretical some-day-we-must dinner, but a real event with real people – the best first step is to email or phone your first choice of guests and ask them. At that point, you can’t go back on it without faking a medical emergency, family tragedy or house fire, all of which will demand more effort than simply putting on a dinner. Yes, the Coefficient of Dynamic Friction – gecko-sized cousin of Static Friction, you recall – will nip at your heels and make hissing noises, but Dynamic Friction is, contrary to his name, lazy by nature and easy to ignore.

Host a dinner. Invite a combination of friends and newcomers. Ask the guests to bring some food: it’s less work and less cost for you and gives them something to take pride in. Repeat, whenever you can. Our heroic hosts Ralph and Cortney do this every week; you don’t have to.

And one odd characteristic of the Coefficient of Static Friction: he gets lighter the more often you fling him off your chest. That part is not explained by physics.
*It’s not actually a law, more of a rule of thumb. There are three laws related to friction, Amonton’s First and Second Laws and Coulomb’s Law. They state, more or less: (i) the heavier you are, the harder it is to get off the couch; (ii) it doesn’t matter whether you’re lying on the couch or have one buttock on the arm rest, you’re still stuck on the couch; and (iii) once you’ve got off the couch and started moving, it won’t get any harder (or easier) to keep moving.

Luke Murphy is a freelance writer, filmmaker, animator and designer. Born in West Berlin and brought up in Ireland, he currently lives in Toronto and works on documentaries, screenplays, and fiction.

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Knock Knock, Who’s There? Guest Blog By Award Winning Journalist and Author, Wendy Dennis

I met Ralph for the first time about a month ago, when a mutual friend connected us on a work matter. At some point during our conversation, he told me about the New Sabbath Project. It sounded interesting, so I asked how I might become involved. “We’re hoping people will hold their own dinners and invite people from their circle,” he said, “but you’re welcome to have dinner at our home any time.” Then he gave me the date of their next dinner, with the proviso that he’d confirm the invite after first checking with his wife Cortney about guest numbers and so

He did confirm, and that is how, a few weeks later, I found myself knocking on the door of the Benmergui-Pasternak home
in mid-town Toronto with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and a container of ginger candied carrots in hand. (The only pre-dinner request was that I bring a bottle of wine and, if possible, “a side dish that goes with chicken”.) Bear in mind that when I stood on the porch of the B-P home that evening, I’d only known Ralph for about an hour and had never actually met Cortney. As it turned out, when I showed up at the door, she didn’t appear to have been expecting me. (For the record, Ralph insists he told her.)

I bring this up not to embarrass anybody or get in the middle of a divergence of marital opinion (or what may or may not have
been a breakdown in marital communications). We are, after all, talking about a couple who somehow manage to put together
regular Friday night dinners (to which they apparently invite complete strangers), despite holding two full-time jobs (and then some), parenting two little kids, and dealing with whatever else they have to deal with in their no doubt over-scheduled lives. (Ralph also has two big kids from a previous marriage so you can factor in that as well.)

Anyway, in spite of the glitch, Cortney graciously welcomed me, offered me wine, ushered me into the living room, sat me down in front of a plate of appetizers, which I immediately began inhaling, and made me feel totally at home.
Home is the operative word, because everything about Ralph and Cortney’s home and the evening that followed was immeasurably homey—or, as we Jews like to say—haimishe.

From the aromas that greeted me at the door and immediately transported me, madeleine-like, back to the Friday night dinners of my childhood, to the casual kid clutter and family photographs everywhere, to an actual real live kid named Emmanuel who was running around and greeting everybody, the ambience evoked a homey feeling at every turn.Soon the other guests arrived and the Proseco and conversation began to flow. Then we moved on to dinner, which began with blessings over the candles, wine and bread—the bread being Cortney’s home-made challah, and about which all I will say
IS this: once you tear off a chunk (and tearing off a chunk is the only way to eat it), you are willing to become a challah whore to get your hands on another.
Next, Ralph went around the table and asked each of us to offer a blessing for someone or something we felt moved to offer one for.

The blessings were simple and eloquent. Besides providing an insight about the person delivering it, each one
engendered a lovely sense of connection with that person. The food was plentiful, the meal amazing, the conversation
thoughtful and engaging and the atmosphere utterly unpretentious.
After the meal, Ralph asked each of us to express thanks for something for which we felt grateful that week, and so we went around the table once again. At this point, I feel I should mention that I am basically a heathen. What I mean by that is that while Jewish cultural traditions were a big part of my growing up years, unlike virtually all of my relatives and friends, my family didn’t belong to a synagogue, or attend one, even on the High Holidays. Nor did my siblings and I attend Hebrew school—unlike everyone else we knew. While I did grow up with Friday night dinners, by the time my own generation came of age, that ritual had mostly become a thing of the past, and I haven’t actually been to a Friday night dinner since, well, last century.

But there I was, sitting at a table and offering blessings in front of people I’d only just met (none of whom were Jewish, by the way, besides the hosts and me), and doing so seemed like the most natural thing in the world for me to be doing. The naturalness of the experience, the feeling of being present in it, and the sense of connection and community it engendered in me, are something I really want to stress, because although I am deeply interested in the idea of connection—with myself, with those I love, with work that engages and inspires me, with larger social, cultural and political matters—I am not, by any means, a let’s-make-a-blessing sort of person. I actually recoil at anything with even the slightest whiff of formal religion or New Agey-ness or groupthink, and if I sense anyone trying to shove that sort of thing down my throat, or make me participate in a ritual that feels like a kumbaya moment, I basically start looking for the exits. Which is why the way I felt at Ralph and Cortney’s table is so significant.

The evening felt authentic in the best sense of that word. Not only did it serve as a truly pleasurable oasis at the end of a week of mostly just trying to get through (sound familiar?); the experience inspired me to think about how I might pay it forward. On a more selfish note, I’ve already had a coffee with a writer I met at the dinner who happens to live in my ‘hood and with whom it was helpful and fun to share writerly tips and preoccupations.

So I’m a fan of the New Sabbath Project. I think Ralph and Cortney are onto a pretty cool idea here, and heathen that I am, I’m delighted to have been asked to share in it.
–Wendy Dennis

Wendy Dennis is an award-winning journalist and author who writes for many leading publications, including The Walrus, Toronto Life, where she’s a contributing editor, and House and Home, where she writes a regular column about lifestyle trends.
She has also been a high school English teacher, instructor of magazine writing at Ryerson University, and editor at Toronto Life and Fashion magazines.

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Finding Time to Rest and Be Grateful

At this week’s New Sabbath Project table, we decided to incorporate something different — something our friend who twinned with us a couple of week’s ago incorporated into her New Sabbath Project dinner. In addition to our blessings over candles, bread, wine, and our personal blessings around the table, we included a questions about gratefulness and gratitude. “What were we most grateful for in the past week?”

In a culture with communication devices that can keep us tied to the workplace around the clock — chipping away that sacred space around what could and arguably should be time for rest, rejuvenation and reflection, I’m embarrassed to say it was actually a little tough to come up with something I could identify at that moment — not because I hadn’t been grateful for things this week — but because I find we are so rarely “present” during so much of our daily living, that those moments — even the more challenging ones — that help us learn, grow and feel good often pass by too fast to remember and thus purposefully acknowledge.

It got me thinking more about the connections between gratitude, sabbatical and the impact the interaction of those two things have on our daily well being – both mentally and physically.

Positive psychologists and many others have written a fair bit on the correlation between gratitude and happiness for instance — that practicing gratitude through daily meditations for instance just help us feel better. I have tried this and have felt the effects. It’s a tough thing to keep up though I find because with full time work and 2 small children, it means carving out even more time to do something with intention — that doesn’t involve just stopping. The net effect unfortunately, is that such beautiful practices are the first things to go in a hectic, busy schedule — kind of like exercise. Funny — we then have to find ways to forgive ourselves for being too busy to take care of ourselves.

It made me think about what I recently read on a website I came across called “Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life”. Here, someone writes that “rest is a route to productivity. It’s a myth that we succeed through unceasing and tireless effort“. Yes, research does find that consistent and deliberate practice leads to elite performance in many fields. But focused work and consistent practice are not the same thing as unending work. Olympic athletes must rest or they get hurt. Fruit trees forced to produce for more than one season lose their ability to bear fruit. And us worker bees can slowly develop sleep debt so deep and burnout so profound that we are left too exhausted to function“.

On Rabbi and blogger Henry Glazer’s “Grateful Rabbi” blog site, he suggests we should think of the sabbath — whatever day that might be for you — as a day of gratefulness. What a great idea — and one so easy to forget if you never slow down to make it happen — to build a fence around that place in time.

In the end, I of course remembered something I was very grateful for this week. It was watching my older son — who has just this year learned to read — take my younger son onto his little lap and read him a bedtime story. How grateful I am to have that and to have witnessed the love these two brothers have for each other — easy to miss in the day to day where horse play and competition for parental affection and toys often blur those other fantastic memories.

The morning after an incredible night of making new friends around my dinner table, it’s also fair to say I am extremely grateful for the reminder that even short sabbaticals truly create the space to nurture so many good things — including the presence of mind to live more consciously — and to remember and reflect on the things for which we are grateful.

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Twinning the New Sabbath Project — The Best Export We’ve Got

Since beginning to blog, we’ve been hoping to expand our New Sabbath Project — sharing the best Jewish export — helping others to build a fence around the sacred — a weekly sabbatical from the 24-hour information highway and the working world that demands we stay tied to our technology both at the office and away. The sabbatical — no matter how short is meant to protect rest, reflection and rejuvenation. The idea is that through a weekly feast with members of your community to acknowledge and celebrate “being” instead of “doing”, be it with friends, neighbours or strangers who become friends, that we build community and citizenship because it is in this consciously restful and reflective state that we can find the place to share part of ourselves in a deeper way with our neighbours; we can talk more freely about the things that matter in life. We are pleased that aside from now expanding the New Sabbath Project to Kenya, we have now for the first time, twinned with another home in Toronto his week — with a friend originally from Vancouver now living in Toronto. No stranger to a weekly Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), she would be including different faiths at her dinner table — which is part of the pluralistic message of the New Sabbath Project. For us, we had an eclectic mix with non-Jewish Italians, East Coast Canadians mixed with Greek Orthodox, a Yemenite and a Jamaican Jew who had contacted us through our website and asked to join in — curious as to what we do here. While we welcomed them into our home, we were reminded that we cannot do this alone. And, it’s not enough to just stick to family or stick to “your own”. In an effort to truly build community, you must be willing to expand your borders, lower your barriers and open your home — no matter how small — to people you may not have considered before. We cannot keep hoping others will take the lead — we must take the lead ourselves, accept there is some work involved but also know that it is doable, manageable and totally rewarding as a social exercise. Without taking the leap — even once in a while — to build that fence around the sacred and open your home to members of your community, neighbours, co-workers — every day just rolls into the next and we continue by and large to ignore our neighbours and stay within a much smaller world. A huge thanks to Brianna for agreeing to twin with a pluralistic New Sabbath Project dinner. If you think you’d like to twin with us one Friday night, please contact us. We’ll be happy to help.

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Feast Friday…It’s Time.

I’ve been trying to understand why more and more people are showing
an interest in our New Sabbath Project. Why they are coming up to us and
saying, “I saw your blog” or I read the article about you at http://

and we think what you’re doing is lovely. We’re mystified that the concept
seems so revolutionary but happy that people are ‘getting it’. You see, the
simple but profound idea of opening your home to others and taking a few
moments to show gratitude and bless those in our lives who could really use
a blessing or two — well that seems to be resonating.

As we build a small fence around the sacred and challenge the idea that
every day is just like every other day we adjust the journey of our lives,
take a course correction as it were and pause just long enough to light some
candles and perhaps light the way to gaining a bit more of community.

By opening up your home to the world around you — not just your relatives, not
just to other Jews — but to the neighbour who just arrived from another city,
the co-worker who you find so nice to work with and to those who we find
so little time to be with like lifelong friends
that you promise you’ll get
together with real soon but never really do.

Author Judith Sulevitz writes in ‘The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time’, that she likes anthropologist Victor Turner’s use of the word “communitas”, referring to the kind of “group life that emerges at the edges of society, not in the middle of it, where people search for something – meaning, solace, truths that the larger society doesn’t seem to offer”.

The Sabbath and the idea of rest from all that propels us through our daily
life is not a retreat but a re-focusing
. After six days of doing we are allowed
at least a night if not a whole 24 hours of being. On May 11th we are twinning with and others to host friends and acquaintances, Jews and others in our homes — feasting in celebration of weekly sabbatical to help reconnect with others and grow community. We hope you will consider doing the same. The meal can be modest or grand, it matters little. It can be pot-luck or cordon bleu. We hope that you will want to do the same, invite some neighbors, friends and co-workers to break bread and grow community.

In our home we spend a good hour on appetizers and getting to know each other or catch up with old friends then we come to the table where we sing some traditional blessings over the candles, go around the table to hear each others’ personal blessings (please see website Tool Kit Page at, bless the wine as we toast each other and then bless the bread, my wife’s delicious egg loaf Challah, that we dip in a little salt and then, in true Moroccan style, toss a piece of salty, sweet bread to each person starting from the oldest to the youngest. After that, some chicken, a few side dishes that friends bring and great conversation about the things that really matter to us — community, culture and citizenship. This is our way but not the only way but we do find the personal blessings in particular, act as a great equalizer.

It’s all quite simple, but in some small way subversive. If you have thoughts on Sabbath, are inclusive, and looking for pathways to the same end, let us know. If you have the time to contribute something to our blog we are always looking for contributions as well.

I’ll end with something from Judith Sulevitz again from The Sabbath World,” The Sabbath is a ritual, not an artifact. It is not an object built in space; it is a performance enacted in time.

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Shabbat Goes Universal

Check out the article on the New Sabbath Project. Read our blog, then join us. Let’s celebrate our best export – on a pluralistic, progressive, inclusive level — breaking bread and growing community — one meal at a time.

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The New Sabbath Project…Could Go Global

Julius Lelmket, Rift Valley, Kenya - Twinning the New Sabbath Project with Toronto Canada

What do you get when you mix a Christian Maasai Minister, a Humanist and a practicing Jew? Actually we’re not sure yet but we have started down a path that may lead us all to a better place.

You see it seems that our has attracted the attention of Julius Lelmket — a Christian Minister from the rift valley in Kenya who has adapted our Friday night tradition to his locality while keeping the pluralistic and inclusive flavour that we hold so dear. We contribute a bit of money to make sure that Julius can lay out a bit of a feast for those who come to take part, in some cases from a fair distance, to join him and his family as they light candles, do blessings and share time together to talk about things that matter and create community — one meal at a time.

Resting and Drinking Tea At the Second New Sabbath Project Dinner

We are learning about Julius and his community and we are learning something about ourselves as well. I’ll be honest — at first we were a bit worried about engaging in a relationship with someone so far away who wanted to join in our project but needed a little monetary help. The idea activated all my middle class radar screens. Were we in a genuine relationship? Did others see us Westerners as mere dollar signs? Blah blah blah. What we realized by breathing through that nonsense was that Julius and his community were doing a wonderful thing – bringing in Christians and what he refers to as “non-believers” alike – into his home.

Julius, his wife and children have now hosted two New Sabbath dinners and have shared some wonderful rituals with us through our ongoing communication.

He writes ”Children were excited to be served with a delicious meals. Some of them are from poor families and eat only one meal a day. They rarely have drinks like tea in their homes”. He writes that his “community culture” has a specific way of sharing news and ideas. They call it “eating words” and this was conversation dominated their first New Sabbath Project. When adults meet, even if they are just traveling and therefore passing through. They have to stop, take some time and converse. They begin by asking, “How are your children? Then they extend that question to other people and finally to cows. By doing this Julius and his community find out how families are doing, both children and adults, what the weather and agricultural conditions are and the state of their cattle which are revered as sacred. They share valuable information on disease outbreak, war and community. Beats the hell out of “Hey, how’s it going?”

Candles serve as the local light source this NSP evening.

He tells us that after supper, one community elder blessed all the guests including the children. Since cow and milk is revered as sacred among the Maasai community, any blessing must involve the cow, ie: cow milk, cheese or cow or horn. The elder has to splash cow milk to people and says “Enkai(God),be ours, bless this people young and old alike, let all diseases leave them, their enemy’s weapon to be bland, give them peace prosperity. Let our cows multiply. Let their legs and hands be strong.
As the sun rises in the morning, bring hope to community the Maasai where there were. God be near to us and far to our enemies, who hates us and wish us bad omens. The food we eaten to give us health and strength, let this night be peaceful, Naa I!”

New Sabbath Project Supper

This unexpected connection with Julius is something that has made us realize that perhaps the next phase of our New Sabbath Project is to find and twin with communities all over the world and find others who will do the same. Encouraging people to gather and share food and ideas — building community one meal at a time.

Please let us know if you have any ideas of communities that we can reach out to — to help them create Friday nights where they too can build a fence around the sacred. Light some candles, say blessings to whatever or whomever you’d like as you go around the table but more importantly — know that you are sharing this space in time with others.

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