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The Change-the-World Shabbat Dinner

Good deeds.

I’ve been struck by how many Jewish holidays carry the message that we should be helping someone else.

On Rosh Hashanah, we recite that tzedakah — charity — along with prayer and repentance, will lessen the severity of God’s decree.

The Yom Kippur fast is meant to cleanse our souls, yes, but also to remember those who fast of necessity.

On Sukkot we are supposed to feed guests in our temporary shelter and think about those who have no roof at all.

On the Tenth of Tevet, I was taught to fast for the persecuted.

On Tu B’Shvat, I was made to think about exploitation of the land and my part in it.

On Purim, we’re directed to bring gifts of food — mishloach manot means “sending of portions” — to ensure that everyone can feast.

On Passover, we are supposed to invite “all who are hungry” to come and eat.

With so many festivals and fasts oriented to healing the world, it seemed entirely fitting to attend a Shabbat dinner run by recent college graduates who are devoting a year to vanquishing poverty.

Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps represents a handpicked team of 71 young people in four cities — New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and D.C. — who have applied to spend one year working in the nonprofit world.

Each member is assigned to one of the communal residences, and matched with a job in one of 57 organizations addressing hunger, homelessness, affordable housing, education, or domestic violence.

Each of the six so-called “houses” is considered a Jewish home — the corps members decide how kosher to be and which holidays to celebrate; applicable Jewish texts are taught by visiting faculty. Observance varies widely within each residence, but one principle does not: lifting people up.

“Three words in Deuteronomy,” says Cheryl Cook, Avodah’s new executive director, ‘Tzedek, tzedek tirdof’ – ‘Justice, Justice, Shall You Pursue.’ We’re not just encouraged to pursue justice, we’re commanded. Avodah answers that charge.”

The “bayit” (home) I visited in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood consists of three communal apartments in a brownstone, 13 young people in all. (There are 12 in the Brooklyn Bayit and they came to this Community Shabbat as well.) I could smell the cooking in the elevator.

The minute I walked in, I felt middle-aged and square. Everyone was in their 20s and more casually dressed. The kids (can new graduates still be called kids?) chatted on sofas, on scattered chairs, on the floor.

There was a groaning bookcase, a batik wall hanging, and a string of small light bulbs lending the room a twinkle. The sign posted near the fridge announced, “This is a Kosher Kitchen.”

I met Kevin who is working at the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, Shoshana who is working at the Bronx Jewish Community Council, Kayla who is at the Red Hook Community Justice Center, Hannah who works at Sanctuary for Families. (I promised I would use only first names.)

Eli was in charge of tonight’s ritual and meal (everyone takes turns). A paralegal at NYLAG, the New York Legal Assistance Group, he wore a ponytail, square yarmulke and rubber clogs.

He started by asking each person to bring a family member into the room.

Both Lynnie and Elana “brought” their grandmas, whose first yartzheits fell during this particular week. I “brought” my 15-year-old daughter, who dragged me to my synagogue’s soup kitchen six years ago, where we’ve been serving breakfast Thursday mornings ever since.

Eli then distributed a handout on conflict management, entitled “Deep Dialogue: Saying What We Mean and Doing What We Say” by Professor Jay Rothman of Bar Ilan University in Israel.

The essay suggests that “the art of peacemaking” is not to argue our own points but to hear someone else’s — to ask, “Why do you care so much? Why does this matter to you so deeply?”

Eli asked us to pair off to examine Rothman’s essay, then consider committing to truer listening, to being “a pursuer of peace” — a “Rodeph Shalom.”

As the noise level swelled with competing conversations, it brought back an exchange I had with Rabbi Adam Chalom, a Humanist rabbi in suburban Chicago, who pushed me to expand my definition of Shabbat observance.

“If we remember that Shabbat was made for the Jewish people by the Jewish people, then it’s not a matter of squeezing ourselves into some box labeled ‘Shabbat.’ It’s a matter of defining what that box or space can be for us,” he tells me. A Sabbath meal, a Jewish novel, or Jewish study is as authentic as sitting in synagogue.

“It’s based on our choices and our lifestyle,” says Chalom. “And if you make different choices, the Yiddish phrase is ‘Gey gezunderheyt’ — go in good health. Would reading a Jewish poet or going to a Jewish movie on Shabbat count as a Jewish experience? I would say yes. Because it activates your Jewish identity.”

This reverberates when Eli offers the Avodah group two options before dinner: one to welcome the Sabbath through exercises in mindfulness which he’ll conduct; one through movement — led by Laurel in her apartment down the hall.

I start in Eli’s group, as he leads us through six brief activities pegged to the order of the prayers. During a loving-kindness meditation, Eli says, “We’re channeling the feeling we get when we’re hugging a loved one or a small child.”

We repeat a mantra: “May I be safe from harm. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.”

During “mindful walking,” we put one step deliberately in front of the other across the small living room. Though this makes me self-conscious, I see its point: we’re slowing things down, noticing how we move — or rush — through our days.

Eli says, “We’re working with this metaphor of putting Shabbat in the being mode rather than the doing mode.” (It occurs to me that, though Shabbat is a time for being, it’s nice to be in a roomful of people who, during the week, actually do.)

A few doors down, rap music is playing and Laurel is leading four women on four yoga mats in a series of sweaty exercises.

I can only imagine the Orthodox frowns, but Chalom’s admonition comes back to me. “The ultimate question is what does Shabbat mean to you. I mean, if you read the text of Shabbat, it’s a creationist holiday. In 6 days, the world was made. Well the vast majority of Jews under the liberal spectrum are not creationist. So there’s an instant disconnect many people have with the language that’s being used. And many of them don’t believe in a personally interventionist God, who either wants or needs all the praise that’s involved….So I think part of the challenge is that disconnect with what Shabbat means at its root. Is it a creationist holiday commemorating the creation of the world and the creator of the world? Or is it a space for Jewish identity?”

Questions around identity can strain the bayit at times. Each house has to navigate its pluralism, which is no small feat. “Some people wanted the house to be more observant; some worried it was too observant,” said Lynnie, who hails from Southern California. Others confirmed that there had been disagreements around how to organize a Jewish home that doesn’t alienate the most observant or the least.

Cook says the corps members are supported through these tensions, but never dictated. “Being able to function within a diverse Jewish space is as important as anything they learn. Because it’s the real world,” she explains.

David from New Jersey says, “I think the goal is to create — inside your home — a microcosm of the world you want to live in outside your home. But it’s hard with 20 strangers.”

There is one clear area of unanimity: Judaism’s mandate not to stand idly by.

“I’m never going to be able to un-link Judaism and social justice again,” says Lynnie.

“Judaism to me isn’t about religious observance,” David says. “It’s about building community through values.”

Chalom’s perspective echoes again: “If we are all there is, in terms of a conscious force for good in the world, then all the more responsibility is on our shoulders to do something about it. Because it’s not going to happen from anywhere else. If the angels of rescue are not on their way, then we have to be the angels of rescue.”

I’d venture that these corps members are angels of a kind, whatever their complexities and even if they may not agree on what it means to live Jewishly.

Reuniting in Eli’s apartment, the group recites the blessings over challah and wine. (The hot challah rolls from Trader Joe’s are a revelation. Who knew?)

Eli and Joey have made six courses from two cookbooks — Syrian and Israeli, including lentil soup, cucumber salad, onion and feta salad, potato and egg and a slow-cooked rice dish.

I try not to eat too voraciously as I don my reporter’s hat, asking these 20-somethings about their Avodah experience. “It’s a demanding year,” one tells me. “You’re seeing hard cases, working long days, and then there are two educational programs per week with mandatory attendance.”

I ask Hannah what she likes the most. “The Community Shabbats like this one.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “A religious person is one who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.”

For me, Avodah’s members meet Heschel’s definition: they defy despair.

“We don’t use the word, ‘compassion,’ very often,” said Sarah from Rye Brook NY? . “We talk much more about justice. It’s energizing to be around people who care about the same things.”

And enervating, too. “Some people feel they can’t relax because they have to care all the time,” Sarah adds.

Joey chimes in, “Sometimes when we get home from these jobs, we need a break from the caring.”

I ask him if he takes away an overriding sense that the world is unjust. “Absolutely,” he answers.

Is he optimistic that things will really get better for the populations they’re helping? “No.”

His candor actually made me optimistic. Because Joey does the work anyway.

All 71 current corps members do the work anyway — despite the scope of poverty and its obstinacy. That seems to me holy labor — be it Chalom’s definition or any other rabbi’s.

As I leave Washington Heights, I think about whether, decades ago, I could have been brave enough to choose service between college and career, let alone as a permanent profession.

I wonder how many of these committed young people will ultimately be hooked by this pursuit or drained by it. (Avodah says that in its 17-year-history, 3 out of 4 alumni go on to social justice professions.)

But mostly I’m aware that this Shabbat dinner reminded me of the Jewish nexus I keep encountering: compassion and elbow grease. You don’t just feel; you act.

We are the ones who have to take the raw material of the universe as we find it,” says Rabbi Chalom, “and make it better.”

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