Coming together, and reaching out, at the Shabbas table

Debbie Albert lights the Shabbat candles. She and her mother, Flossie (behind her), proposed the "Guess Who's Coming . . ." idea to their congregation as a "way to honor my father," Debbie said. "He would have loved it!"
Debbie Albert lights the Shabbat candles. She and her mother, Flossie (behind her), proposed the "Guess Who's Coming . . ." idea to their congregation as a "way to honor my father," Debbie said. "He would have loved it!" (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 02, 2013

In March, on the way home from a national conference about Israel, psychologist Bernie Albert talked to his wife about a suggestion made by one of the conference speakers: Host Sabbath dinners for fellow Jews - including strangers - who would then become hosts themselves. The exponential growth of hosts would mean that, Shabbat after Shabbat, more people within a community would come to know one another.

Such a simple concept - such powerful ripples.

"We should do something about that," Albert said to his wife.

Two days later, on March 9, just hours before sunset heralded the Sabbath, Albert, 78, died suddenly, felled by a heart attack at his Ambler home.

They were stunned, but that night, his family - wife Flossie, daughter Debbie, and son Joel - gathered around the Shabbat table as was a lifetime habit.

Of course, it would never be the same without Albert, and they all knew it. But they pushed through the ritual that had always been so important to him.

That Sunday, more than 600 people gathered at his funeral. Debbie offered a eulogy that told of her father's professional advocacy for the disabled, his devotion to Israel, and, yes, his love of the Jewish Sabbath.

And that might have been that.

Except that the Albert family wanted a meaningful way to honor him, a way that would be personal. "Bernie absolutely loved people, and a memorial fund just seemed too remote," said Flossie, 78. "We needed something that suited him, and it had to be person to person."

It was that yearning that soon reignited the idea of the multiplying Shabbat dinners, to be applied within the congregation of Temple Sinai in Dresher, where four generations of Alberts have worshiped. "We knew," said Debbie, "that this was the way to honor my father. He would have loved it!"

Fast-forward to summer and the birth of "Guess Who's Coming to Shabbas?" ( Shabbas or Shabbos are other ways to pronounce and spell Shabbat.) After working through a master plan, the Alberts announced their proposal to the congregation. The ambitious goal: Involve each of the 500 families in the "Guess Who's Coming . . ." experience, ideally as both guests and hosts, by May 2013. If every guest thanked her host by hosting others, it was very possible.

It was an idea that took off so quickly and so powerfully, that by September, 83 families had participated as either host or guest. Orchestrated by the Alberts as "matchmakers," many families involved were congregants who had not known one another well - or, in some cases, at all.

Each host receives a complete guide to the traditional Shabbat rituals, including explanations of prayers and suggestions for table-talk subjects - from discussing current events to sharing what was special in the week gone by. Special attention is paid to engaging children at the table, central to the "Guess Who's Coming . . ." concept. Debbie's husband, Glen Feinberg, is a science teacher at Perelman Jewish Day School, and Flossie was a nursery schoolteacher for nearly 25 years at Temple Sinai.

In Flossie's words, "children belong at the Shabbas table to experience love and learning, two magnificent principles of Judaism."

At Shabbat services the morning after the Friday night dinners, hosts and guests are invited up to the pulpit for the honor of reciting certain Torah blessings.

For Rabbi Adam Wohlberg, spiritual leader of Temple Sinai since 2001, the "Guess Who's Coming . . ." concept has "incredible potential."

"One of the most joyous aspects of Judaism is a Friday night dinner with family and friends," he said. "And Friday night dinners were a mainstay of Bernie's life."

That joy was palpable on a recent Friday night at Debbie and Glen's home.

Gathered at their table after a bit of meeting and mingling were six families, some with kids who thought the biggest highlight was Debbie's homemade challah.

Everyone watched as Debbie lit Shabbat candles, using the 100-year-old candlesticks that had belonged to her maternal great-grandparents from Russia.

Her son Noah Feinberg, 12, offered the kiddush, the blessing over wine. His older brother, David, 16, was in Israel on a school program, and his parents and grandmother got a bit misty during the brief prayers.

"We all miss Bernie, and we miss David, too - most of all on Shabbas," said Flossie.

For guests Audrey and Howard Cohen of Maple Glen, the Shabbat experience at the Albert-Feinberg table was both welcome and inspiring. They agreed that it also helped to enhance relationships within Temple Sinai. "Ours is a large congregation, and bringing together smaller groups like this transforms that feeling," Audrey said.

Lori Fischer, a convert to Judaism who had never met the Albert family, wanted to participate in the dinner experience before trying it herself. What she saw emboldened her. "Now I definitely want to do this soon."

On the same night, in a home a few minutes away in Maple Glen, Scott and Andrea Rosenthal, with daughters Mindy, 16, and Rachael, 13, were hosting another "Guess Who's Coming . . .," with seven couples and half a dozen children.

A social worker and former president of Temple Sinai, Andrea said the dinner was both fun - guests were laughing - and filled with meaning. "Bernie Albert was my role model and mentor, and I've missed him very much. So doing this was a privilege for me."

Nadine and Neil Lubarsky had never hosted guests for Shabbat dinner, although they regularly observe Jewish holidays. But last month, after they had experienced a "Guess Who's Coming . . ." at the Albert home, their Dresher home was filled with an intergenerational mix.

The couple's two adult daughters, a son-in-law, and a young couple who had just moved to the area were there, along with Elaine and Neil Freemer, contemporaries and acquaintances of the Lubarskys.

"I think [the Freemers] were a little shocked to be invited, but it turned out to be a wonderful idea. The Shabbat dinner definitely changed our dynamic and we'll probably see more of each other," said Nadine, who already has booked another hosting for Friday. The mix of older and younger guests also was an awakening. "It took us out of our comfort zone a bit, but that's part of the whole idea."

By the end of 2012, 40 percent of the temple membership had participated in the program. Debbie even has been invited by congregations in South Jersey to help launch similar programs. Her dream is to see "Guess Who's Coming . . ." go regional, then national, then global.

"The one lesson that I think my father left us is that at the end of your life, 'stuff' just doesn't matter," she said. "It's all about creating sacred times for ourselves and those we love."

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