A Meal That Connects

spring_2015_goldman_img_2[This essay is from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. Reprinted with permission.]

By Ari L. Goldman

The 15 dinner guests arrived at Ariel Abrahams’ Chinatown apartment on a recent Friday night just around the time the groceries arrived from the supermarket. Everyone dug into the bags of food and dinner preparations were underway. One guest knew how to bake and was kneading and rolling the dough that soon emerged from the oven as challah. Others turned the vegetables, grains and spices into a savory curry and made hot and cold salads. Someone made sweet potato lemonade.

“We all set the table together,” Abrahams said. “The meal made itself.”

Abrahams calls himself a performance artist and he often brings people together for communal walks, art installations and meals under the title of the Bilha Zilpah Reunion Community. But this evening was different. The dinner was held on a Friday night and was organized in conjunction with OneTable, an organization that supports Shabbat dinners for people in their 20s and 30s and gives them the tools to inspire each other to make Friday night Shabbat dinner an enduring practice in their lives.

The evening included some freewheeling Shabbat blessings over wine and candles, but, more important, it was a chance to talk about the week that past. Everyone was asked to share an experience and express it in a color drawing. At the end of the evening, the group turned the drawings into a 16 mm film and posted it online.

OneTable, a project inspired and supported by The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and The Paul E. Singer Foundation, operates on the principle that Shabbat dinner is a powerful connector for people in their 20s and 30s. Since the program’s research and design phase was launched in New York in July 2014, more than 300 dinners have been hosted, creating 4,500 places at the table. About half the participants are Birthright alumni.

“There’s very little Jewishly for people at this stage in life,” said Aliza Kline, the Executive Director of OneTable. “They’re not about to join synagogues. Shabbat dinner can fit more naturally into your life, whether you’re home, out with friends or at the beach. It might even make you happy. Shabbat dinner also has all these nice systematic benefits. The workweek ends on Friday, you get a chance to breathe and reconnect with people, in real life, just in time for Shabbat dinner. Even if you are not Jewish, you can enjoy a Shabbat dinner.”

As the Chinatown dinner made clear, the goal is not to have traditional dinners with chicken soup and gefilte fish. The dinners do not even have to be kosher, and the guests do not all have to be Jewish. And while the hosts are provided with support, they are still responsible for inviting their guests, creating a welcoming environment – and cleaning up at the end (although Abrahams got everyone else to do it).

In its research and design phase, OneTable learned that two logistical barriers to hosting dinners were time for shopping and cooking know-how. In response, they set up accounts that could be used for either groceries or takeout dinners from restaurants. Some, like Abrahams, order from the OneTable Instacart account. Other hosts simply order takeout for their guests from Seamless and bill it directly to OneTable.

OneTable also learned that there is high anxiety about attending as a guest. To alleviate some of the pressure, OneTable created a partnership with Feastly, a social dining platform, which is like Airbnb for dinners. Each vetted host creates a profile on the site, complete with a picture and a brief bio. Each dinner is posted so that guests can have a sense of what to expect and who else will be there; they register through the site as well. Visitors to the site can scroll through hundreds of Shabbat dinners that have been posted since July 2014 – each one unique.

Dinners at home are just one of the projects of OneTable. It also awards grants to entrepreneurial types who organize larger Shabbat dinner events for 30 to 60 people, in private dining spaces or restaurants.

“It is all about young adults inviting and hosting their peers,” Kline said. “This is not Shabbat-in-a-box. There is no box. You are free to do what you want, to create the Shabbat dinner experience that is authentic to you.” Kline hopes to take the program to five additional cities in the next few years. She believes she can reach more than 100,000 young Jews through these dinners.

Abrahams called the dinner he hosted “a lesson in group dynamics” and took his cues from the participants, both in terms of the food and in terms of Jewish ritual. Other dinners are more traditional. Dinner was almost ready when 10 guests showed up at the Upper West Side apartment that Lauren Belinfante shares with her two brothers. The guests, all in their 20s, powered down their cell phones, loosened their ties and some put on kippot. Someone tuned off the television as Kiddush was about to be recited.

Dinner hosts are closely vetted by the OneTable team. And special events are held for hosts. Some guests have stepped forward and volunteered to be hosts. One guest who made the transition was Jen Rothschild, 25, who works for a tech start up in health and wellness. “One of my friends invited me to a OneTable dinner on Fire Island,” she said. “I loved it. Then I went to another dinner, this one a kickoff for the organization on the roof top of the JCC in Manhattan.”

Since then, Rothschild has hosted two Shabbat dinners, one for friends from her Manhattan high school and the other for friends from her alma mater, Duke. Neither dinner was very traditional, she said, but they did mark the Sabbath in a special way. “It is something I value,” Rothschild said. “It would be nice to do this every Friday night, but at this stage in my life, it would be unrealistic. For now, this works for me.”

Ari L. Goldman, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, is an editorial consultant for “CONTACT.” He is the author of four books, including “The Search for God at Harvard” and “The Late Starters Orchestra.”