True Price of Jewish Engagement

By Rabbi Jessica Minnen

It takes money to create and sustain Jewish community, but the costs are not, as other commenters on Ari Witkin’s recent piece on free programming have noted, solely monetary. Particularly not for millennials, who consistently cite social and personal price tags alongside financial constraints as stumbling blocks en route to enduring Jewish practice. I can attest in my role as the Rabbi in Residence at OneTable that the anxiety felt by emerging adults concerning who they might sit next to at a Shabbat dinner can be as acute than anything triggered by a grocery bill.

When we talk about the price tag of Jewish life, what we are really talking about is, as Gary Olmstead addresses in his recent article in Philanthropy Daily, our “troubled concept of commitment.”

“Modern Westerners live like consumers,” Olmstead writes, “associating different events or obligations with a social/personal price tag. We weigh the costs associated with each, and then pick according to our preference.”

At OneTable we seek to inspire a Shabbat movement, and while we believe an enduring Friday night dinner practice results in a profound sense of freedom, it certainly isn’t free. The price tag is a series of radical shifts, from simply ending your week to ending your week with intention, from being a guest to becoming a host, from being a consumer of Judaism to becoming the producer of your own Jewish experience.

Hosting Shabbat dinner is an investment of social and personal capital in addition to funds: scheduling the meal and inviting your peers, proactively managing RSVPs, purchasing and preparing food, crafting ritual facilitation, and overseeing the details of hospitality that turn a good dinner into a great one. The nourishment credit OneTable provides along with one-on-one hospitality and ritual guidance is not designed to cover the full cost of an elevated dinner for ten, but rather serve as starting point, (75% of dinner hosts report contributing personal funds and 75% of guests report contributing financially or sharing an item for the dinner). Costs are high, and so are our expectations. Our users respond in kind, hosting thoughtful Shabbat dinners with rich Jewish content and personal authenticity. We have found that it is possible to lower the barrier without lowering the bar.

Witkin concludes that “long-term commitments aren’t established through giveaways, they are built through meaningful encounters that invite individuals to make real personal commitments to their own Jewish life.” I couldn’t agree more. Shabbat dinner, perhaps more than any other Jewish experience, requires consistency and commitment. If we want emerging adults to buy in to Jewish community, we must empower them to contribute not only their money, but their social lives, their time, and their tables.

Jessica Minnen is the Resident Rabbi and Director of Program at OneTable. Originally from Paducah, Kentucky, Jessica is an alumna of Washington University in St. Louis, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Paideia: The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, Baltimore Hebrew University, and the Jewish Theological Seminary.