Building Community through Shabbat Dinners
I grew up in a household that valued Shabbat. We children were required to be home for dinner every Friday night, no exceptions, and all of our friends were welcome around the table. While at the time I may not have appreciated this rule, I am now thankful that I have an understanding and deep love for Friday night dinners and the beauty of marking the passing of time each week in community over a shared meal. So it’s not surprising that I find myself working for a Jewish organization that centers around Friday night, the table, good food, wine, and good conversation.
OneTable provides resources to instill confidence and competence in young adults to create their own meaningful experience on a Friday night and build a Shabbat practice all their own. At a time when studies show that the millennial generation is lonely and craving community, we believe Friday night dinner is the answer to both. Through a series of resources from online ritual guides, blog posts, and recipe ideas, to one on one personalized coaching, and a small stipend to help elevate the dinners, OneTable empowers people to practice radical hospitality, open their homes, and share in communal ritual.
OneTable is taking Kehilla/Community to the next level. We use the very technology that is often blamed for making social interaction difficult in real life, and we leverage it to engage. We’ve built an online platform where people hosting dinners can find others looking for a seat at the table and vice versa. The technology is both functional and visually appealing, mirroring modern social platforms like AirBnb and Paperless Post, allowing hosts to be creative and personalize their dinners. Guests can find a dinner that fits their needs to join each week. Hosts can post a meal in celebration of life events or holidays. And friends can gather and meet new people.
We are using technology to meet the unengaged where they are and offer them a chance to be a part of something bigger. Hosts can start with whatever knowledge and ritual practice they already have, and using our online resources, guides, and coaching, add to and explore what other rituals could look like for them. Creating a unique Jewish practice can have greater meaning than consuming something that has been handed to you. We argue that this is the difference in creating an enduring practice, one they have the tools to build upon throughout their lives.
Some guest lists are highly curated to gather old friends, others are open to the public, and others still hold space for folks who need it most. In this political climate, Friday night can serve as a way to tune out the world that challenges people daily, and tune into each other for support, relaxation, and to process the world at large. The kavanah, the intention, of the meal is as important as the menu. Providing a space to engage in meaningful ritual and conversation is kedusha, sacred purpose. We urge hosts to elevate their dinners in a way that marks the occasion as something other than a regular day of the week, it’s a special day.
Bringing in holiness and ritual can look different from table to table. OneTable is offering people the space to explore ritual, try it on for size, and figure out how to feel good practicing kedusha. Why not add a meditation to your Friday night, if that is a practice you already have? How about providing candles so that everyone can light together? What if everyone went around the table and shared what they are putting down from the week in order to have both hands free to lift their cup and say l’chaim, or cheers? Isn’t that ritual? We would say, “definitely yes. This kind of authentic opting in to ritual leads to a growing and enduring practice. By offering many options, we are lowering the barriers of access and offering multiple entry points in the hope of engaging as many young adults as we can.
We do all of this with an understanding and acknowledgement of the ever-changing world in which we live. Millennials at large have their finger on the pulse of what is cool, what’s happening, who is influential, and the hot new food, exercise place, and brand. What we’ve learned is that how we talk about what we do, how our brand looks and feels, and how we engage with people, comes down to authenticity and hospitality.
Hachnasat orchim – the practice of opening one’s home, welcoming people in, practicing hospitality – was not in the four propositions, yet it is at the heart of what OneTable does. It’s not enough to think of just the ritual or the food on the table, but how people will feel, what they will smell, and where they will sit in your home. Considering the flow of the night, how to introduce new people, how to explain and share one’s practice with others, is vital for a successful meal. A host should strive to ensure guests have a nice time, enjoy the company, and leave feeling full. This is a big part of Jewish life and one that must be considered when engaging new people.
OneTable is changing the way people engage with Judaism. No longer must you go somewhere to “do your Jewish” or continue a practice that lacks personal meaning and connection. Instead, we offer support in exploration of the many ways to mark time, elevate a meal, and welcome people into your home, as thousands are doing across the country and the world on the same night. We are creating a Shabbat movement.
Sara Fatell is an organizer from Philadelphia who calls DC home. Her upbringing in a typical Jewish home and her roots in politics and movement building make her uniquely suited for the work of OneTable.