This Shabbat Dinner Pairing App isn’t for Everyone [and that’s the point]

On the Friday during Hanukkah, OneTable achieved its strongest Friday night ever, seating 3034 people across 241 dinners spanning the country.

Photo courtesy OneTable

By Gideon Grudo
Posted with permission from The Times of Israel

WASHINGTON, DC – Amanda Herring easily recalls what she considers one of the most creative Shabbat dinners she has ever attended.

It was an event entitled “Thank G-d, It’s Fried-Egg: Bob’s Burgers Shabbat,” referring to the animated TV comedy about a family running a burger joint in New York City.

The hosts – dressed up as Bob and Linda Belcher, the parents in the show – used a social network called Feastly to coordinate the Manhattan dinner in January 2016. Guests signed up online to get the address and time, learn more about the hosts, RSVP, and glance at the menu, which included the event’s eponymous burger as well as “Home for the Challah Days” burger, among others.

It is dinners like these, Herring told The Times of Israel, that eventually led her to become a so-called coach for OneTable, which had partnered with Feastly to accomplish its mission: get millennials hooked on the Shabbat ritual, whatever form it might take (such as the “To Err is Cumin” burger).

On December 15, the Friday during Hanukkah – ehm, Shabbanukah – the three-and-a-half-year-old OneTable achieved its strongest Friday night ever, seating 3,034 people across 241 dinners spanning the country. The majority of OneTable’s 22-person staff seems to agree: there’s no single way to hold a Shabbat dinner, as long as it’s on a Friday.

OneTable – whose budget climbed from $800,000 for the second half of 2014 to $5.6 million for the coming 2018 – is taking a novel approach to an ancient conflict. Leaning on modernity in the form of an iOS app, blogs stuffed with GIFs, and aggressive social media practices, it aims to engage under-affiliated Jews in their 20s and 30s in one of Judaism’s oldest and defining rituals – and have them make a habit of it.

The Times of Israel spoke with OneTable staff across the country to understand their challenges and hopes as they work to persuade a generation often accused of inattention to pay attention just once a week.

How does that work?

OneTable believes Jewish millennials will celebrate Shabbat more often, and even regularly, if it lowers existing obstacles to the ritual.

In plain words, OneTable generally identified these hurdles as stress, cost, and custom.

To combat the stress factor, the dining platform takes a good deal of the logistics out of the user’s hands, automating as much of the ritual as possible. Hosts manage the dinner using the homemade platform – active since March 2016, when OneTable left Feastly behind – as they would a Facebook event page. The platform lets them set the time and location, send out invites and updates, as well as tailor the look of the event with photos and text.

To offset cost, OneTable will subsidize up to $150 of each dinner. For every guest invited, OneTable sends the host a $15 coupon, which can be used at approved sellers including grocery stores such as Whole Foods, delivery services like Grubhub, or even Winc, a recent addition subsidizing wine for OneTablers.

Credits are capped at $150, enough to cover 10 people (no connection to a minyan). Hosts must apply for the credits by Tuesday of the week of the dinner, but that’s about the only requirement (and even this can be appealed).

For those interested in help in learning the customs, OneTable offers to send people to provide one-on-one guidance – or at least get on the phone. Hub managers personally connect people to coaches based on common interests and/or location. These are usually former hosts, who are seasoned in either Jewish custom, general hospitality, or both.

We practice Judaisms

The target OneTable users do not habitually observe the Sabbath. But they are self-identifying Jews of one type or another, aged 22-39, unmarried, out of school, and childless, among other criteria.

The requirements are products of thorough research, and come partially from the 2013 Pew Research Center report “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” – the study also largely responsible for the very creation of OneTable, formerly known as Startup Shabbat.

Based on short interviews with more than 70,000 Jews across all 50 states and Washington, DC, and longer interviews with about 3,500 Jews, Pew found 96 percent of millennial Jews “are proud to be Jewish.”

The numbers are reassuring for those interested only in Jewish pride, but OneTable co-founder and executive director Aliza Kline says that “doesn’t mean the [respondents] were practicing and it for sure doesn’t mean they were affiliated.”

Indeed, the same report found 24% of Jewish millennials – less than a quarter of the proud ones – regularly lit Shabbat candles. Serving this population, therefore, is OneTable’s objective, and that is where it spends its resources.

Kline, the former director of successful ritual bath Mayyim Hayyim, labels herself a “ritualist.” For these types of rites to resonate with younger religiously estranged Jews, Kline says she knew she would have to tap into the social and digital media the generation uses to foster friendships and affinities.

Shabbat is timeless – and thank God,” Kline told The Times of Israel, saying she spent her first six months on the job asking lots of questions with the aid of 20 twenty-somethings who collected data for her.

She studied how the target demographic interacts with Shabbat, and how it doesn’t. She also examined what they want to be doing, what is stopping them from doing those things, and so on.

“Instead of creating a box with things in it that you need for Shabbat,” like a toolkit containing candles and challah, Kline said, “what we designed is an open-source platform. It’s not us designing dinners for people.”

It allows people to design their own. There is no such thing as a bad Shabbat, Kline believes, unless maybe it’s “on a Tuesday.”

Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and co-author of a book about Birthright – another initiative to stoke Jewish identity in young Jews – says the biggest challenge is not bringing millennials to OneTable, but keeping them there. It is important to inculcate “normative practice” they might later pass on to their children, he says.

“Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that very few people do it regularly,” Saxe told The Times of Israel about Shabbat dinner in general. “It simply is not a normative practice right now for American Jews.”

The reason for this, he says, is that people think there is only one way to do Shabbat.

“They see it, perhaps, as an all-or-none situation,” he explained, citing the various and specific Torah rules governing the practice. “If you’re not shomer Shabbat [Sabbath observant according to Orthodox laws], if you’re not refraining from driving and spending money and using electricity and so on … then [they think] you can’t do it.”

But today’s diverse Judaism allows for different approaches. Shabbat is “one of the concrete ways” people come to terms with their identity, explained Saxe, and OneTable’s techno-centric approach is “using the problem to find a solution.”

#BadJews are good (for OneTable)

As OneTable’s resident rabbi, Jessica Minnen found one of her jobs was nudging hosts to create a Shabbat in their own image.

“That authenticity is really tricky… A lot of young people in their 20s and 30s have somehow gotten the notion that they’re bad Jews,” Minnen told The Times of Israel.

But, she said, laughing, “Hashtag bad Jew – that’s badass. A lot of what I do as a rabbi is give people permission to own their own Judaism.” In other words, to each Jew, their own Friday night ritual.

“There’s no such thing as a OneTable dinner. The dinners are as unique and vibrant as the hosts themselves,” Minnen explained, her own Shabbat ritual an Orthodox one these days.

Minnen’s family is secular-reform, her mother a Christian convert married to a non-Jewish person. Minnen herself practiced Orthodoxy, later aligned herself with the Conservative movement, and then married a Hasidic man from “a very serious sect.”

“My husband and I have a very traditional home. I also live and work in a very progressive setting,” Minnen said, adding there are beautiful Hasidic traditions “very foreign to a lot of young, secular, progressive folk. There’s room for all these different ways of being. You don’t have to say that one way is the right way.”

Minnen’s congregation is located in the cloud – the technological, not the celestial. Its walls are built with the blocks of code that make up OneTable’s online dining platform, and her congregants span nearly a dozen major cities.

“Our temple is your table,” Minnen said, adding that sometimes people ask her if she ever wishes she were a “real rabbi.”

“Oh honey, this is so real. You have no idea,” she responds to those people. “I interact with more young adults than most synagogues will see. We believe that more is more.”

Initially, Minnen provided one-on-one coaching to hosts. But as OneTable expanded, it hired hub managers to be, among others things, Minnen’s Jewish ambassadors. Each hub has its manager, and a national manager handles dinners in non-hub cities.

As of mid-December, OneTable has seen 4,100 hosts run more than 9,300 Shabbats across the country.

High tech, hightouch

A year ago, OneTable hired Marina Rostein to manage Washington, DC, today’s fastest growing hub.

During the recent record-shattering Hanukkah Friday, the DC hub came out on top.

Sixty Shabbanukah dinners set an all-time high for the District – among them a latke/doughnut cookoff and a Maccabees + Mac&Cheese dinner – totaling more than any other hub managed that week.

“I think people love to celebrate combined holidays. Friendsgiving Shabbat was also quite popular,” Rostein told The Times of Israel. “People are realizing that this is something they can do on their own, in their homes and on their own terms.”

Rostein oversees the District’s 25 coaches and 800 or so hosts, and spends her time pairing hosts with their coaches, coordinating event and community partnerships specific to DC, investigating local nourishment options, and handling issues that are beyond a coach’s scope.

OneTable staffers call the high level of personal engagement the high-tech, high-touch approach. “A large platform wouldn’t be able to cater to people without this high touch,” Rostein said.

One-on-one attention is expensive. Coaches make $60 an hour (a national flat rate, regardless of hub). They can make more helping out at the larger events OneTable tries to facilitate in the hubs it serves.

In early December, OneTable teamed up with progressive DC synagogue Sixth & I to host a Shabbat dinner promoting a new Jewish cookbook. It also hosted a subsequent Wednesday evening Q&A with the cookbook’s authors, Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook.

Events like these (and others like tech festival SXSW’s OneTable dinner) are one way OneTable hopes to increase visibility and offset costs since, as Kline says, “We have more demand than supply.”

There aint no such thing as a free Shabbat dinner

Washington, DC, resident Michael Cohen emailed Minnen when he wanted to figure out where his 68-year-old mother fit into OneTable’s model.

“I am writing because I think OneTable would be a great opportunity for my mother,” his late November 2017 email read. “I’m worried though, that your site claims it is for people in their 20s to 30s, and that those who do not fall into your ‘demographic’ should inquire about other initiatives.”

The two exchanged several emails before Minnen summarized in a measured but firm way: “Unfortunately, right now our funding is dedicated to hosts in their 20s and 30s, so your mom would not be able to host with OneTable support.”

She added she hoped it would be able to offer such support in the future.

“I thought it was ironic,” Cohen told The Times of Israel, recalling what he found once he perused OneTable’s website. “This is not what I believe true Judaism is.”

Danny Cohen, OneTable’s director of finance, operations, and technology, told The Times of Israel that the company has various ideas to decrease costs. Still, grants and fundraising top the company’s priorities for 2018, determining most of its hires in the coming year, he said.

OneTable is “working with the nourishment option,” Cohen said. Currently, OneTable bears the cost of the $15 credits it provides with most sellers, but negotiations are ongoing with Whole Foods, for example, to get a discount on those credits.

When OneTable launched, it hoped for 2,500 seats its first year. Cohen said the platform expects 90,000 seats in 2018. Due to the increase in numbers, companies once uninterested in talking about coupon discounts are now willing to sit down.

While Kline, the executive director, is not interested in advertisements, which she said would “commodify the Jewish experience,” she said there are certainly opportunities for corporate sponsorship.

For example, if a maker of sous vide equipment were to underwrite a week of dinners, it could suggest specific recipes for the dinners using its products, or even allow for discounts on those products using the nourishment credits.

Another possible revenue stream could come from monetizing OneTable’s API (application programming interface), the brains behind OneTable’s dining platform. But Cohen insists that is far away and not a priority, as it is not mission-driven.

Still, OneTable has already allowed several organizations to brand the API as their own where such instances are in tune with OneTable’s mission.

Since summer 2017, Advocacy and Services for LGBT Elders (SAGE) used SAGE Table to coordinate more than 200 meals across the country.

“They were able to white-label our technology so it looked like their branding and worked with their website,” Cohen explained.

Searching for what Kline called “efficiencies,” Cohen’s technology could also bite into costs other than the dinners, like the coaching. The finance, operations and technology director envisions a time when hosts with a burning question about their burning challah will be able to chat with a coach on demand via the phone app.

OneTable’s partner events, too, could see a coach in attendance, layering the event’s purpose with an opportunity to provide personal attention to hosts en masse, rendering many one-on-one meetings unnecessary.

It is clear that the company is going to shift into newer forms in the coming years – and that has been the point since its inception.

Feed and Feedback

Kline is a student of, and “in love with,” design thinking – a suite of problem solving approaches dating back to the 1970s based on frequent and actionable feedback loops with users.

She knew an initiative to revolutionize the millennial Shabbat practice had to take into account the everyday user experience in addition to the OneTable vision.

The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and The Paul E. Singer Foundation, which provided initial seed funding and act as operating partners, agreed, which is why they were so excited to work with Kline.

To that end, anyone can email and tell Cohen, the finance and tech director, what they want to see in future versions of the online platform – or non-technical aspects of OneTable. One such piece of feedback led to the development of the current potluck function that allows hosts to list dishes or drinks that guests can contribute to the meal.

If all the items are checked off, the app recommends bringing flowers or wine, Cohen said. Rollout of the new capability is expected in 2018.

The company also commissions regular reports and surveys on its users.

Rosov Consulting finished the most recent such survey, and found that as of September 2017, women make up 68% of hosts, 15% of whom come from interfaith families, and that 19% of hosts have run four or more dinners while 52% have hosted just once.

In addition, more than half of the guests are single, and over 80% practice Shabbat often, rarely, sometimes, or never – but not consistently. This tells Kline that OneTable is hitting a solid target demographic: those without a regular practice.

But the research also tells her that less than half of guests (48%) leave a OneTable dinner feeling more comfortable than they had before with regard to the practice itself, and only 13% of guests became hosts. If enduring practice is the point, that number is important.

Saxe describes this as the company’s greatest hurdle. Kline readily admits most people would rather be consumers than producers, guests rather than hosts. And OneTable aims to change that – though that does not mean she expects every user to host Shabbat dinner every Friday night.

But if people recognized hosting as one of their options – alongside watching the most recent Star Wars or raging with friends to EDM, which Saxe would identify as OneTable’s real “competition” – Kline would consider her mission accomplished.

“When you give people permission to become the producers of their own Jewish experience, you open yourself up to the criticism that you’re somehow accommodating ‘Jewish lite’ – and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Minnen.

If it starts with a Jew seeking knowledge, seeking where they should be or how they should be Jewish, then that, Minnen concluded, “is the movement.”