By Aliza Kline and Lisa Barkan
It’s Friday evening in Israel. As the sun slowly sets and the bustle of the day settles, you begin to feel it, that unique high, the transcendent experience of Shabbat. How might we translate that energy and those emotions when you return home? And, how might we better design the Shabbat experience in Israel so that you will not only remember it, but return to it again and again throughout your life as inspiration for your own memorable Shabbat experiences?
OneTable was founded in 2014 to support young adults in their 20s and 30s to create a lasting and personal Shabbat dinner practice – one that evolves with them to meet social, spiritual and communal needs. Jerusalem Village is an Israeli organization providing home-hosted Shabbat dinners for young adults in Jerusalem through their flagship “Shalom al lechem” program. Having both found that Shabbat dinner can be a core organizing tool for organizations striving to meet the needs of millennials, our missions are aligned and complementary.
American and Israeli millennials interact and overlap mostly when tens of thousands of Americans participate in Birthright-Israel (BRI). Fifty percent of those involved with OneTable are BRI alumni; for many of them the trip provided an introduction to a Jewish approach to life, culture, and time, including Shabbat.
Research led by OneTable and Birthright-Israel showed a wide range of approaches to Jewish practice and Shabbat observance varying by trip organizer. (Trip organizers function as Birthright-Israel’s tour agencies that create and plan educational experiences throughout Israel, with different themes or lenses, based on Birthright-Israel’s standards and requirements.) The 25 hour stretch of Shabbat can be a challenge to structure, but, planned carefully, Shabbat dinner can act as an anchor on the trip. Shabbat dinner experiences may be led by staff who are Jewish educators (American or Israeli) but there are times when they are led by staff who may be new to Jewish practice themselves.
In partnership with Birthright-Israel and with financial support from The Paul E. Singer Foundation, Jerusalem Village and OneTable designed three different Shabbat modules to be facilitated by American trip leaders. The modules introduced participants to Shabbat as a time that joins practice, meaning, and community. It’s an opportunity to celebrate, deepen relationships, reflect and become more aware of Jewish life while in Israel, as well as offer participants takeaways and inspiration to create Shabbat experiences after they return home.
Four values guided the design process:
1. Shabbat dinner prioritizes unity over uniformity.
It’s better to be together, in a way that feels personally authentic, than to fit a particular mold. Israel provides a unique setting to begin identifying with Shabbat because “Jewish time” is ingrained in Israeli culture. Shabbat can heighten connections to Israel during the BRI program, and Shabbat dinner can reconnect us to Jewish community when we return home.
2. Shabbat dinner can be transformative.
Shabbat is distinct from the rest of the week, so the preparation and experience of Shabbat dinner is elevated and granted greater significance than other meals. It’s framed by physical rituals: preparing food, arranging a table, buying flowers, pouring wine – and of course rituals like lighting candles, making blessings over the wine and challah – all illustrate both the how (practice) and the why (meaning) of Jewish living.
3. Shabbat dinner invites ownership.
Being a Shabbat dinner host or guest can be empowering. Participants can create Shabbat dinners to reflect their personal style and interests, interpretation or reinterpretation of Judaism, and connection to Jewish meaning, history, and peoplehood, in a way that feels authentic.
4. Shabbat dinner is not a one–off; it’s about becoming a producer of an enduring and meaningful Jewish practice.
Shabbat dinner marks time, especially for young adults experiencing transition. “Jewish time” is harder to sense in America. The practice of Shabbat allows people to bring that unique temporal framework anywhere. As Zohar Raviv, International VP of Education for Taglit-Birthright Israel teaches, the BRI trip is not about “site-seeing,” but primarily about “insight seeing.” Shabbat dinner offers them a chance to reflect on their Israel experiences and continue to engage them when they return home.
Over the summer of 2017, we built modules for three different BRI trip organizers to pilot on a total of 12 buses. We trained American trip leaders through an online course and 1:1 coaching.
Rather than train the staff to lead a Shabbat experience, we trained the staff to empower their participants to “own” Shabbat preparation themselves.
Regardless of which module the trip provider chose to prototype, the American staff attended a pre-trip conference call with Rabbi Jessica Minnen from OneTable for inspiration and planning. During the trip they interacted with an Israel-based project manager who ensured that they had the tools they needed. Each bus received a sakit shel Shabbat – a bag of resources, including an instant camera, string and clips to display the photos on Friday night, and mason jars to decorate and fill with flowers or candles for the Shabbat dinner table. Staff also received a small creativity budget for Israel-inspired treats – fresh flowers, a selection of halva from the shuk, rugelach, etc.
In addition, some busses participated in a hands-on workshop led by young Israelis from the Jerusalem Village focused on the smells and tastes of Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market. In addition to receiving a detailed map of the shuk, the participants left with Moroccan and Yemenite spice mixes in take-home jars with recipes and havdalah spice bags.
Initial feedback we collected through independent evaluation and survey processes looks promising. Survey respondents from the groups with specially trained and supported staff reported higher satisfaction with their overall Shabbat experience (82%). These are very early findings and will continue to be evaluated. We are happy with these results, and are even more excited about the broader impact:
“The participants who experienced the OneTable activities expressed a high degree of satisfaction […], interest and enjoyment from the Shabbat experience, and a more positive perception of Shabbat preparation and hosting, […] and reported a greater desire to keep the Shabbat in the future.”
Over the coming months we hope to both iterate our initial modules and expand them, including more staff and participants, and inspired by longer term impact. In subsequent articles, we will include our detailed findings and report back on winter 2017 and summer 2018 prototypes. The direct result will be Shabbat experiences in Israel that are personally meaningful and that inspire participants to recreate on their own.
“Shabbat is an essential component of every Birthright Israel trip. We are excited to continue exploring these enhancements with OneTable to further inspire our participants ongoing Jewish journey,“ Elizabeth Sokolsky, Executive Director of Birthright Israel said.
Ultimately, the goal is to sustain an impact for the educational experience in Israel beyond the immediate sphere of the BRI program. As Shalom Orzach, advisor to this effort notes, “enduring learning provides the tangible tools for continued doing.” Together, we believe Shabbat dinner is just that: the weekly opportunity for doing.