Learning to Flourish – An Examination of Thriving in Jewish Education through the Lens of the Shabbat Dinner

Photo courtesy OneTable

By Mark S. Young

[This is the first of a four-part series from the Leadership Commons of The William Davidson School of JTS, in partnership with OneTable, a national nonprofit whose mission is to empower people age 21-39ish who don’t have a consistent Shabbat dinner practice, to build one that feels authentic, sustainable, and valuable. JTS and its alumni who work at OneTable are taking a “deep dive” into what it means to approach Jewish education through the lens of thriving: learners engaging with Judaism in order to live more meaningful and flourishing lives. We examine the challenges organizations may have in applying this approach, and how we can address and overcome these challenges, together.]

In the Spring of 2017, we sponsored a 12-article series called, “Inspiring Things Are Happening … In Hebrew School?” in eJewishPhilanthropy. Throughout the articles, we highlighted many of the bright spots happening today in part-time Jewish education throughout North America. Much of what these bright spots had in common, as our dean, Dr. Bill Robinson, articulated, was the commitment to shift goals from “Jewish continuity to Jewish flourishing.” From Chicago to Toronto to the Bay Area, the series gave us multiple windows into how part-time Jewish education can be framed around this philosophy and thus position Jewish education to successfully engage new generations in the 21st century, serving as a catalyst for securing a strong vibrant Jewish future.

Since then, the Leadership Commons has advanced the ideas and strategies for a Jewish education that inspires and guides Jews to thrive in their lives. We highlighted this in our Spring 2018 issue of Gleanings, in our various fellowship, research, and leadership training programs, and in upcoming conferences throughout this year. We are also keenly aware that while windows into an educational operation may be informative for those on the outside looking in, it is only a partial view. As a result, we wanted to return to this topic, by taking a deeper look into one organization that is engaging a new generation of emerging-adult Jews through a tech-based, high-touch approach.

Our colleagues at OneTable have agreed to be our organization of analysis, and in the following weeks you’ll be hearing from three alumni of three of JTS’s five schools (Rachel Sherman from The William Davidson School, Rabbi Jessica Minnen from the Rabbinical School, and Dani Kohanzadeh of List College), who all now work at OneTable. Each will share how they see OneTable as Jewish education that helps learners to thrive by engaging them creatively in the practices of Shabbat. They will also address some of the critiques OneTable has encountered.

These articles are not intended to be a set of promotional pieces for OneTable, a national nonprofit whose mission is to empower people, primarily millennials aged 21-39ish, who don’t have a consistent Shabbat dinner practice, to build one that feels authentic, sustainable, and valuable. While we at the Leadership Commons do think their mission and programs are pretty great, we are partnering in the spirit of learning and sharing this learning to benefit all of us in Jewish education. These articles will share educational practices that you, the reader, may feel that you could apply in your own educational enterprises. The OneTable staff shares honestly, openly, and with vulnerability about their struggles, so we all may learn and grow through this examination.

Part of this open honesty will focus on several components of the OneTable model that they believe helps them deliver a thriving Jewish educational experience. However, it is these same components that may raise questions about OneTable Shabbat dinner’s “authenticity” or long-term efficacy.

For example, OneTable Shabbat Dinner experiences nearly always take place without a trained Jewish educator or clergy present. Are these experiences still compelling if an “educator” isn’t “in the room?” Many of the rituals at OneTable Shabbat Dinners can look very different than what many others would see as “typical,” and the “traditional practices,” – does the different kind of doing, or kevah, in Hebrew, matter more then the intention, or kavanah, behind them? Or, many of these experiences are highly social and yet non-immersive (a Shabbat dinner is not 4 weeks at Jewish summer camp!), with content or ritual often playing a minor role. Does it then count as effective Jewish education, or is this Judaism-lite (a term often used as a put-down)?

Our authors will address each of these questions in the weeks ahead with the hope that you (our readers) can find practices and ideas to engage new participants (or strengthen the engagement of current participants) in your Jewish community, and in a manner that can help your learners to flourish through access to the wisdom of Jewish text, practice, and community.

I met my wife at a Shabbat dinner, before OneTable launched but at one not unlike those that OneTable organizes. I was in my mid-twenties and searching for myself. I reluctantly attended a short Shabbat service and dinner in someone’s home – and it was different from any other Shabbat experience I had before. There were bongos, melodies I had never heard before, and other than one friend, no one I knew. It was joyous. That evening changed my life, not only because I met my wife that night, but also because despite the paradigmatic differences of this experience to all my other Jewish educational experiences before, it felt authentic and real to me. I felt included and the content was accessible. In this Jewish environment, I felt joy and meaning and community – I felt what it was like to thrive Jewishly in life. OneTable has since capitalized on the potential of the Shabbat dinner experience to enable young adults to experience thriving in their lives. Let’s examine this format, and figure out how we can adapt their insights to the organizations and Jewish communities we serve, as all of our energies are needed to inspire Jews through the wisdom of Judaism to lead flourishing lives and create a flourishing world.

Mark S. Young is the managing director of the Leadership Commons at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS).