sharing shabbat

OneTable brought Shabbat to thousands of young adults. Soon, empty nesters will dine, too

As the world emerges from the pandemic, people are 'looking for ways to connect on their own terms — in their own homes, in their own community,' OneTable CEO Aliza Kline said

When Regina Lopata Logan, a 74-year-old professor at Northwestern University, moved from the Chicago suburbs to the city, she no longer lived close to many of her friends.

“I love where I live; however, it’s really hard to make friends as an older adult, because people have their friendship groups,” Lopata Logan said. “If you don’t belong to a temple or synagogue or church or a mosque, and you don’t have little kids, and you don’t have a dog, it’s really hard to meet people in your neighborhood, so it’s really hard to make friends.”

Lopata Logan is also seeking spiritual connections. She was born into a Jewish family, but her mother stopped practicing Judaism when Lopata Logan was a child. “As I’ve gotten older I’ve felt the need for spiritual community and connection with a shared history even though I don’t know that much about the practice of Judaism and the observance of holidays,” she said.

Lopata Logan isn’t alone in seeking greater community. Her daughter works as a director of impact and learning at OneTable, an organization that has served as a platform for 80,000 Shabbat dinners since its founding in 2014. While OneTable has been filling that need for young adults for nearly a decade, it is now expanding its demographic reach. 

For years, the organization has served people ages 21-39 by offering them a platform to connect, funding to host dinners and resources such as recipes, invitations and Jewish religious resources. Now, the organization is expanding: In response to the loneliness many empty nesters feel when their children no longer live with them, OneTable plans to offer a platform for older adults, too.

“The idea of having a Shabbat table is a great entrée for me, sort of low stakes and yet something that could be very, very meaningful,” Lopata Logan said.

“We’ve received a lot of requests over the years — ‘When do I get OneTable for me, OneTable for me, OneTable for me?’” Aliza Kline, the CEO of OneTable, said. “And those ‘me’s are a lot of different types — parents, grandparents, teenagers, families with young children. The population that was most recurring was empty nesters, older adults — the parents of our users.”

“Especially after the pandemic, many people’s affiliations waned or completely faded away. Now, they’re looking for ways to connect on their own terms — in their own homes, in their own community — but they’re getting stuck,” Kline said. She pointed to the 2021 Study of Jewish LA, which found that 25% of Jewish adults ages 55-64 in Los Angeles were “minimally involved” in the Jewish community. That percentage was even higher for people 65 and older.

Kline recognizes that a lot of Jewish philanthropy is guided by the goal of encouraging young adults to marry other Jews and raise their children Jewish. “OneTable’s historic funders are, by and large, really motivated by the young adult piece,” she said. “And so this is an expansion for us; we are looking at new conversations with new funders or different ways of relating to existing funders.”

OneTable is still looking for funders to support Shabbat dinners for older adults. According to a letter addressed to funders, the cost of launching the new initiative is $500,000.

Details of the program for older adults are still being discussed, including exactly which older adults will be eligible. One letter OneTable addressed to funders uses the age range “55-64ish.”

“We’re describing it as adults without kids at home. Probably, it’s 55-plus, but it’s really not all the way through 80-plus,” Kline said. “I’m using empty-nester language intentionally because we know there’s an explicit shared experience of being used to having Shabbat dinner with kids, and then they’re gone. It’s actually somewhat parallel to being a 25-year-old and moving to a new city without your family nearby.”

Barbara Waxman, an expert in the study of aging, says she’s a “huge proponent” of OneTable expanding to older adults, and she can see herself taking advantage of the resource. “What OneTable is offering is the chance for people to get beyond superficial small talk,” she said.

But Waxman, 60, thinks the organization should focus on “stage, not age.”

“It could be empty nesters. It could be people on a growth journey. It could be people who are going back to school, or who’ve gotten divorced. It could end up getting people of similar ages, but my point is, age alone is not really the qualifier that is going to define how I connect with someone.” 

“People are not attracted to being labeled by their age,” she added.

Lopata Logan said she’s hopeful that OneTable will be able to offer its resources to people of all ages.

“We’re empty nesters, too; we’ve just been empty nesters longer than someone who’s 60,” she said. “I really hope that there’s not an upper age boundary; I’m not exactly sure why there would have to be.”

Kline also said that, while OneTable offers hosts ages 21-39 $10 per guest to help with the costs of holding a Shabbat dinner, they’re not sure if they will offer this funding to older hosts, who may be less likely to need it.

“In general, people in midlife and better have more resources than younger people,” Waxman said. “But when you’re trying to target a population that wants more connection, I think that there are a good number of those people who are on a limited budget.”

OneTable will be testing out the new program in Florida with The Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, among other locations. 

Susan Shulman Pertnoy, the chair of the Palm Beach Jewish federation’s board, says she’s excited for people in her community to start hosting Shabbat dinners as soon as OneTable gives the OK. “A quarter of people in our community are between 50 and 65,” she said. “We are a community where a lot of people come from somewhere else and then move down here and don’t have their families established here, so everyone wants to meet new people.” 

Shulman Pertnoy said she’d love to host a Shabbat dinner herself through OneTable. “I just think it’s a great idea,” she said.

Kline says that in the next six months, she hopes to test the program in at least three cities so that by summer, the program can launch in earnest.

To advertise the new program, Kline says she plans to use Facebook. She also plans to hire participant-facing staff in their 50s and 60s. “For OneTable, we may have a brand partnership with Baked by Melissa, but for this one, I’m hoping for maybe UrbanStems or The New York Times Wine Club,” she said, citing a cupcake brand, a flower delivery service and a wine subscription service.

As OneTable expands its offerings to older adults, it hopes to engage more younger adults at the same time. In 2022, 43,300 young adults engaged with OneTable. “This coming year, we hope to grow by 65% in the number of young adults we engage,” Kline said.