Putting Community on the Table: NEI Shabbat

dolmeh-moby Esther D. Kustanowitz

On a Friday night in February, in a cozy apartment in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles, hostess Tabby Davoodi (during the week, the Executive Director of Persian-American-Jewish organization 30 Years After) was somehow doing two things at once – making sure everyone was fed, and facilitating conversations; satiating her guests’ appetite for both food and story. Tales of Persia swirled in the air, mingling with the aromas of home-cooked chicken and rice flavored with spices evoking places far east, and providing culinary warmth to bolster the feeling of family and history in the room.

This was February’s installment of NEI Shabbat – a program created by the L.A. Jewish Federation’s NextGen Engagement Initiative (NEI), which launched in 2009 with support from the Jewish Community Foundation’s Cutting Edge Grants program. NEI’s mandate was to bring together young adult engagement professionals working in the community to network, collaborate, best-practice share and increase awareness of the scope of opportunities that Jewish L.A. offers its 20s & 30s. “NEI Shabbat is an opportunity for NEIers to host each other in their homes and introduce their own customs and practices to the people in the network,” said Rabbi Alyson Solomon, VP of Special Projects at the Federation. “It’s also a chance to step beyond the network, enabling NextGen Jewish program thinkers and creators to cross-pollinate even more with the demographic they are connecting. The goal is to build a network where we really understand each other, not only the programs and experiences we are creating, but who we are and what we are trying to share as Jews doing Jewish, together.”

“I wanted participants to really appreciate both the story and the traditions of Iranian Jews,” said Davoodi, “to bring our past, our hopes, our struggles, and our culture to life and to really humanize this community which, like any other, is subject to stereotypes and generalizations. Most of all, I wanted to show the Jewishness of Iranian Jews in Los Angeles.” Some guests, Jews of Persian heritage in their 20s & 30s, were familiar with the traditional recipes that graced the table, others, of Ashkenazi heritage, looked at unfamiliar dishes and asked “What’s in this?” Davoodi found conversations with the dinner’s two Russian Jewish participants, to be “especially meaningful, as they swapped ‘refugee tales,’ telling their own stories of repression in an old home and redemption in a new home.”

Each of the NEI Shabbat dinners reflects the personality of the host, often in a different neighborhood. The most experimental of the NEI Shabbat dinners was a tag-on to a gallery opening for artist (and NEI Shabbat’s first host) Will Deutsch’s work, and was an informal pizza affair, with more wandering and art-gazing than sitting and schmoozing. In November, Rabbi Zalman Kravitz of Jews For Judaism, and now a PresenTenseLA Fellow for his developing initiative Nonprofit Exchange, hosted a traditional Shabbat dinner in Pico-Robertson. “As Jewish community professionals, we are always giving to others – what was great about the NEI Shabbat we were giving to ourselves, people who work and live in the young adult Jewish community space, hosting people from across the spectrum of Jewish practice.”

Asher Gellis of JQ International played host to January’s Friday night gathering in Echo Park/Silverlake; the dinner included games and discussion on the theme of becoming better allies for the LGBTQ community, and even the challah – one sweet and one savory – paved the thematic way for celebrating differences. “It was an amazing crowd that brought together people who would probably not otherwise have been in the same room,” Gellis remembers. “The complexity of LGBTQA needs and wants are so complicated, and we have so much work to do. But in this room full of Jews with no shortage of opinions, we created an evening that confirmed that we are lucky to have so many people that want to help make the world and our Jewish community a better and more inclusive place.”

Future NEI Shabbat dinners are in the works, playing in different themes and neighborhoods to expand the boundaries of communities in a geographically vast city. In 2014, NEI is becoming part of NuRoots, L.A. Federation’s newest strategy to engage 20s & 30s in Jewish L.A., Rabbi Solomon explains. “NuRoots has four components – a community fellowship, grants for synagogues and organizations, a multi-generational space in Venice and its platform. The platform, which centers on/has as its core the relationships and collaborations of NEI, aims to bring together thought leaders and practitioners in cohorts, to reflect, refine and leverage their strengths. NEI Shabbat takes this platform into people’s homes, around a Shabbat table and illustrates that how we work affects how we play, and that celebrating together in a separate space engages our spirit and smarts, connects our weekdays to our weekends.”

For more information, contact NEI@JewishLA.org.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is currently the Program Coordinator of the NextGen Engagement Initiative – the L.A. Jewish Federation’s monthly collaborative network to support and leverage the work of Jewish organizations and professionals engaging 20s & 30s in LA.