Ah, the first meal. I remember it like yesterday… in the first meeting, we had decided upon making a Shabbat meal as a means to share a meaningful Jewish experience with friends who were never privy to its beauty. I asked if anyone had people in mind to invite and one girl blurted out that practically her entire dorm hall was Jewish but not religious. And just like that, before anyone else could add any suggestions of their own, we had finalized the invite list for the meal. For funding, I had been directed to an organization called “Project Shabbat” which pretty much gives money to religious kids on college campuses to make Shabbat meals for students who don’t normally ‘do’ Shabbat – perfect! A few emails and phone calls later, we had the promise of monetary reimbursement for the meal. Later that week, I sent out an email to everyone I had spoken to, asking for volunteers to help cook for the meal. Due in no small part to the amazing people I am privileged to know at Penn, we soon had a whole meal signed up to be cooked. The next few weeks were filled with anxiety – when would the meal be (Friday, February 22nd @8pm), who’s coming (we finally finalized on 5 Shabbat-observant students to come – enough to lead the meal and discussions at the meal, but not too many that it overwhelms the non-Shabbat observers; we then had to make sure all the invited people were actually coming), where the meal was going to be (we decided on one of the lounges in the Quad – local for the mostly-freshman guest list), etc. And then it was Friday afternoon, the food was cooked and I left for kabbalat Shabbat with my heart beating fast.
I remember it being a very inspiring kabbalat Shabbat, and with people around me giving me wishes of good luck and godspeed, I was encouraged, but all the more nervous. After davening, I ran back to my room with a friend who was also helping make the meal to retrieve the food. On the way to my room, we saw a mutual friend of ours on his way towards Hillel. We had both met him when he began coming to Hillel a few times, but not being part of any religious or social groups, we were two of the few people who he knew there. Knowing that, and sensing his fear of going there alone and missing out on what we were up to, we invited him along. After packing up the food in suitcases, we quickly brought it over to the Quad, where the meal was scheduled. By the entranceway to the Quad, I saw someone else who I recognized from the few times I had met him at Hillel. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he was waiting for his laundry. “Wanna come to a Shabbat meal?”, I asked him. “Where is it?”, he responded, seemingly not so interested in going out of his way somewhere. “It’s right here in the Quad, in the Goldberg lounge”, I answered. “Woah! That’s right where I live! Really? A Shabbat meal in the Quad? Yeah, I’m coming!” – and just like that we picked up another guest. And then we were there, the table was set, the food was laid out and 15 of us were sitting around the Shabbat table.
It’s hard to go into every detail of the meal (how we explained things, what conversations were had, etc.) but the details were key, and they worked out very well. Just to highlight a few, we borrowed a sparkling silver cup for Kiddush, adding to the exquisite grandeur of the experience (thanks Binyamin – I told you it would be worth it) and we intermingled the observant and non-observant students to promote interaction and discussions. It was an interesting bunch – 5 observant students, 1 non-Jewish missionary, a few totally unaffiliated students and the remainder were students who grew up going to Jewish schools but never really got into Judaism in college. Because of this, singing the songs of Shalom Aleichem and Kiddush were great, as most people could sing along, even if they hadn’t done so in quite a while. We went through the different ceremonies of the meal along with very brief explanations and then we got to the food, over which the table broke into smaller group discussions. Most of the people stayed for a good two hours and before leaving, told us that they had a great time and would love to do it again. We could tell that it was a great experience for these people – they enjoyed it, they got to meet other Jewish students over the timeless Jewish meeting place of Shabbat, and they got to reconnect to a bit of what they might’ve missed and reminisced from home.
What was even more remarkable was that three students stayed behind for close to 4 hours – they wanted to sing z’mirot, and talk more about Judaism on campus, and get involved in social and educational programming and just talk more. I mean, who stays at Shabbat dinners for 4 hours?! One of those students (who I had never seen/met before) told her story: she had grown up kinduv-Conservative and Shabbat was something her family would do. So when she came to college as a freshman, the first Friday night she showed up at Hillel to try Shabbat. And she hated it – there were too many people, it was too unfriendly, too religious, no one said hello to her, she got turned off and she never came back. Until tonight, when her hallmate invited her to this meal and here she was. She said she couldn’t believe how beautiful Shabbat could be, and with other students, at college; she wanted to do this next week, every week, and invite all her friends. We told her that we couldn’t do this every week but that if she came to Hillel next Friday night, we’d be there and introduce her to our friends. She agreed, and she came back the next week, and met a whole bunch of nice, friendly people (they do exist, it’s just sometimes hard for people to find them). Since then, this girl has gone on a journey of reconnecting to Judaism that is largely between her and God, helped in part by support of the wonderful people who make up the Jewish community at Penn. She is now a fully observant and highly religious and active member of the Orthodox Community at Penn, and it is my great honor to count her among my friends. I’m not saying that this one meal was the the magical key that changed her life, but I think it’s clear as to the role it played in the greater process.
Another one of the students who stayed behind was the one who we dragged along when we saw him walking to Hillel. Since that meal, he also started coming to Hillel more and becoming more involved in Jewish activities. The first Shabbat of the following year, he saw me at Shabbat dinner at Hillel and we started talking. He told me that the previous year as a freshman, he didn’t come to Hillel in the very beginning (maybe due to discomfort, or needing time to find his place, or who knows what), which he afterward realized put him at a disadvantage in terms of being part of different groups or communities. He felt, rightfully so, that everyone there knew each other and that people divided up into their little cliques, leaving someone like him alone on the outside. But, he said, you and a few other people (not coincidentally, members of the then-unofficial ‘Heart to Heart’) would always come over to me when I was sitting alone at Hillel and talk to me, sit with me, and make me feel like I mattered. “You don’t know what that did to me, and how that affected me”, he said. “And that Shabbat meal last year in the Quad – that was the best Shabbat of my life. All of that has really inspired me to come here more, become more knowledgeable about and more familiar with Judaism – so that I can be to others what you were to me.” He then started coming every Friday night after that to make kiddush with me and sing z’mirot (he is a wonderful singer and a member of one of Penn’s prestigious singing-and-acting groups) and he loved learning and singing new z’mirot. He told me his goal for the year was to learn how to bentch, like his grandfather used to do, so after dinner one Friday night, we sat for an hour going through all of bentching, culminating in singing “Na’ar Hayiti” – a family tradition of mine that he loved.
And all this just because one Sunday evening some students decided to make a Shabbat meal, and on one Friday night 5 religious students shared the beauty of Shabbat with some new friends.
I can’t even make this stuff up. But I can, and have, made it happen again. And so can you. I’ve been writing up a guide to Shabbat dinners like these, based on a year-and-a-half of experience and over a dozen similarly styled Shabbat dinners – check it out here. Feel free to use whatever you want from it, and to add to it (that’s why it’s a wiki) – obviously not everything I say will work for you but some of it might be useful. But more importantly, sit down with a bunch of similarly thinking friends and think how you can translate this into your setting. It starts with that, and God only knows where it will go from there.