Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has a vision for Shabbat that’s bigger than Judaism itself.
And to help implement it, he has turned to the half-brother of Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
John Taylor, 45, is the new national director of Boteach’s “Turn Friday Night into Family Night” initiative, an attempt to spread the appeal of the traditional family Shabbat dinner to a larger audience of Jews and gentiles.
Boteach, a radio and television host, author, and celebrity spiritual counselor, met Taylor through Booker nearly 10 years ago. Boteach and Booker became close at Oxford University in the early 1990s, when the future politico was a student and Boteach headed the campus L’Chaim Society, a Jewish cultural center. Booker, who, like Taylor, is not Jewish, would eventually serve as the society’s president.
Taylor said he and Boteach struck up their own “instant” friendship. The goal of “Friday Night” is for families to slow down and share a meal together on Friday nights, the start of the Jewish Sabbath. But the project is purposely aimed at a general audience, and participants are urged to spend two hours with two guests talking about two questions.
“This is an amazing project,” said Taylor in a phone interview with NJJN from Boteach’s office in Englewood. “As we do more research, we find that the simple act of committing to family dinner once a week really changes families.”
His initial goal, he said, would be to raise awareness of the program. Boteach said thousands have so far signed up for the idea but nowhere near the three million he had envisioned when it launched in 2009.
Taylor, who once considered becoming a Presbyterian minister, is no stranger to not-for-profit projects. Earlier this year, he founded Urban Farm Fresh, which brings fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables to inner-city Newark. He has also worked for the Princeton-based Bonner Foundation, working with students who volunteer in areas near their college campuses, as well as the national headquarters for the Presbyterian Church.
“John is the perfect choice,” said Boteach by phone from the Englewood office. “He has been involved with the initiative since its inception as a volunteer and spent countless Friday nights with my family. He has worked for religious foundations and church groups and has a strong commitment to the project. He is part of a deeply spiritual community.”
The appointment of a non-Jew to lead an effort to bring a Jewish-based value to a largely non-Jewish audience is in keeping with the Orthodox Boteach’s style of outreach. In his reality series, Shalom in the Home, which ran for two seasons on TLC, Boteach provided family counseling for Jewish and non-Jewish families. In his 2003 book, Judaism for Everyone, Boteach wrote that his goal was “to demonstrate the modern relevance of the world’s oldest monotheistic faith to men and women of all ethnicities, nationalities, and persuasions.”
Boteach said religion did not enter his thinking in hiring Taylor. “He is the person who is best qualified. This is not a Jewish initiative. I see it as a Jewish gift to the wider world. Shabbos is a universal gift that initiated in the Bible with the story of creation, but it is impotent in our time,” he said.
The project’s name is pointedly free of Jewish references, unlike “Turn Friday Night Into Shabbat,” a signature program of the National Jewish Outreach Program.
“The idea is to have uninterrupted family time and to cordon off this time as holy and not be interrupted by work, television, or trips to the shopping mall,” said Boteach. “It’s a uniquely Jewish concept, but it’s for the whole world.”
The initiative’s website, fridayisfamily.com, includes testimonials from celebrities like Dr. Phil, Dr. Mehmet Oz, and comedian D.L. Hughley. Boteach would like to see public service announcements from similar celebrities on broadcast television. He would also like to begin holding Friday night dinners in key cities.
Boteach said that “Friday Night” is about reclaiming the concept of “family values” from those who have politicized the notion.
“This is the cornerstone of family values,” he said. “Gay marriage and abortion are not family values; they are political battles. If we spend more time on gay marriage, how does that help families?… Community, family, the Sabbath — that’s what is important.”
In heading the effort, Taylor emphasizes the notion of family night, and suggested it could be Sunday night, or Tuesday night, as long as families commit to spending one night together around the dinner table.
Taylor, who lives in Princeton Junction and has three children, has committed his own family to three nights per week, but not specific nights, just “whatever works.”
He described the ideal dinner, based on the many Friday nights he has spent with Shmuley and Debbie Boteach and their nine children.
In the Boteach household, Taylor said, “children are all around, there are silly conversations with people rolling on the floor laughing, and serious conversations about local or international issues.
“It’s an invigorating evening that can happen all over the country.”