The pitch goes something like this: Slow down your life for 24 restful hours each and every week! Unplug from your cell phone, computer and pager! As a bonus, get back to your spiritual roots!
That's the advertising campaign of Shabbat Across America, an annual event targeting an estimated 5.5 million Jews across the nation who don't attend Sabbath services.
Tonight, a record 700-plus synagogues, including dozens in Southern California, will hold special Shabbat Across America services designed to give thousands of Jews a taste of a traditional Friday night observance.
"One of the foundation stones of Judaism is the Sabbath," said Rabbi Joel Landau of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine. "Over the past several decades or even longer, many Jews have become estranged from the traditional Friday night environment."
Shabbat, or Sabbath, is a day of rest that begins Friday at sundown. Depending on how observant the congregation, Shabbat varies from simply attending worship services to refraining from using modern conveniences--such as cars, phones, computers and televisions--for 24 hours.
The nonprofit National Jewish Outreach Program spends $750,000 on advertising to get the curious into local synagogues, where the congregations provide a beginner-friendly service and dinner.
"There's no doubt there are a lot of Jews in the U.S. and elsewhere who have a strong sense of being Jewish but aren't religious," said Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of Religious Life at USC. "We're inclined to think it's not possible to keep Jewish life together without that [religious] core."
The program uses print and radio ads--"Turn an ordinary Friday night into something extraordinary"--complete with catchy jingle.
"We've branded the word 'Shabbat,' " said Andrea Snyder, the event's director of marketing. "More and more people are paying attention."
The 5-year-old program, which began with 400 synagogues, is unusual in that it cuts cross all Jewish denominations. As one rabbi put it, "One thing we can all agree on is the importance of Shabbat."
Landau, an Orthodox rabbi, isn't worried what kind of synagogue the seeker attends.
"The idea is to hook Jews anyplace we can," Landau said. "If you've got a person who's totally estranged, let's get him or her in. We'll worry about the fine-tuning later."
Meg Feitelberg, a convert from Roman Catholicism 10 years ago, began attending Shabbat services regularly this year.
"It's brought me a lot closer to God," said the 37-year-old Los Angeles woman, an Orthodox Jew. "We spend more time with our children. We walk home from services and simply play with our children and relax."
Reasons for the secularization of many American Jews can be traced to the early 20th century: Immigrants were forced to work weekends, newcomers wanted to fit into the country's mainstream, and, in more recent years, Shabbat was perceived by some as irrelevant.
But scholars and rabbis see a renewed interest in Shabbat.
"People are coming back," said Rabbi Shelton Donnell of Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana. "It's an oasis in time, a way to look at your life in a new and creative way. What a rare and wondrous thing."
Jewish education has helped, as has an unlikely ally: the abundance of technology.
"The speed of our lives makes Shabbat even more important," said David Eliezrie, rabbi for the Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen-Chabad Center in Yorba Linda. "For example, what cell phones do--and I'm a proud owner of one--is invade your private time. Shabbat is 24 hours when you're not going to get that stock tip or know who won the game. And you know what? The world's not going to come to an end."
Rolling out the nationwide program hasn't been without some small hiccups. One local rabbi dropped out after he called the toll-free (888) SHABBAT number and found his synagogue not listed. And other phone numbers of temples in the organization's database are out of date.
But most rabbis are delighted with the campaign.
"The program's unique, and that's why we're supporting it so vigorously," Donnell said. "This is better than mother and apple strudel."
It's impossible to measure Shabbat Across America's effectiveness, though rabbis estimate they will get anywhere from a few to 50 newcomers through their doors tonight.
"We're already sold out," said Rabbi Gabriel Elias of Congregation Mogen David in Los Angeles. "But we won't turn anybody away."