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Bring on the Portable Shabbat

Jewish funding organizations have long been investing in Israel trips, day school, summer camp, and, more recently, children’s books. And now, thanks to grants from the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and the Paul E. Singer Foundation, young adults can secure funds to execute an age-old weekly Jewish ritual: hosting Shabbat dinners.

Called OneTable, the project began in January 2014, was piloted last summer in New York, and is being directed by veteran social entrepreneur Aliza Kline. Officially having launched mid-April in New York and Chicago, OneTable plans to expand to an additional four cities in the next few years.

We know from research on Millennials that they tend to be less religiously observant and less affiliated than previous generations. So the idea of committing to a regular Shabbat dinner practice is a little bit countercultural. One Table aims to get young adults to reintroduce one of the most foundational and social aspects of Jewish ritual into their lives so that it becomes an intuitive, desirable part of their week.

At the same time, Kline said, OneTable taps into a felt need on the part of today’s young adults. “This population of 20- and 30-somethings are selectively unplugging. They work differently, they engage differently; they really are ‘on’ all the time.” There’s an “increasing trend of people looking for people to connect in real life,” Kline said. “There’s a hunger for real connection, for a surrender, for a release.” As Kline sees it, Shabbat dinners can fill that need.

Practically speaking, a “sharing economy” around events and services is already entrenched among this age group, Kline said — just think Craigslist, or Airbnb. And other ventures, like Blue Apron, which delivers ingredients and recipes to your door, have begun to pop up. “Within weeks you can have a whole network of good people who have been tapped by a friend who have no relationship to the original host,” said Kline.

Partnering with the online meal-sharing site Feastly, OneTable enables hosts — “Shabbat Makers,” they call them — to post their dinner event and invite friends, strangers, or some combination of the two. Along with networking and digital media director Jonathan Eisen and Rabbi Jessica Minnen, OneTable provides coaching and ritual resources to Shabbat Makers. As Kline notes, the notion of authenticity is shifting in today’s parlance: Authenticity may be defined by the individual rather than describe to adherence to tradition. However it’s done, though, OneTable wants to enable hosts to capture the “gestalt” of a Shabbat dinner.

Something Fishy: OneTable offers a ‘nourishment credit’ of up to $15 per guest. Image by Shulamit Seidler-Feller

OneTable is aware that hosts may face barriers to getting an event like this off the ground. So the project provides what is called “nourishment credit” — $15 per guest (up to $150) for the host to put toward services like Seamless, Plated, Sherry-Lehmann Wine & Spirits, or Etsy for ordering food, groceries, Judaica and decor. Another staff person, Claudia Scheinman, answers questions about menu planning and provides moral and logistical support to first-time hosts.

The board won’t release the dollar figure the project has secured, except to say that funders “are committed to making sure that OneTable is adequately resourced.”

Hosts can hold dinners wherever whimsy takes them: in their apartment, on a beach, on a rooftop deck, or as a picnic under a bridge. OneTable is even encouraging those taking up a summer share at the popular sites in the New York region such as Fire Island, the Jersey Shore or the Hamptons to consider adding a Shabbat dinner to their vacation plans. “Shabbat is portable. It goes with you wherever you go,” Kline said.

Kline acknowledged that families who are seeking home-based rituals, rather than OneTable’s current target audience of childless, young adults might be an easier fit for an initiative like this. But young adults, she said, are often enveloped in great tension between steadiness and intense life change: “I like the idea that Judaism can frame this paradox. Shabbat’s there for you all the time.”

Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

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