Recent research on millennials suggests that technology has made them a very lonely generation. But OneTable aims to reverse that trend with an age-old Jewish ritual: the Shabbat dinner. The organization, which launched in 2014 with grants from The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life and The Paul E. Singer Foundation, has partnered with over 80 local and national foundations, federations and individual funders to host almost 8,000 Shabbat dinners across the country to date. OneTable’s social experiment appears to be working: millennial attendees have finally put down their smartphones to dine and converse face-to-face with their peers on a Friday night.
Al Rosenberg, OneTable’s director of communications, recently spoke to JewishBoston about the organization’s goals, its catchy tagline—“A New Way to Friday”—and its recently established Boston operation. Given the sturdy structure, careful preparation and enthusiastic professional team behind a OneTable Shabbat dinner, the first question someone might ask is, “What exactly happens at one of these gatherings?”
“There is a huge spectrum of observance at these Shabbat dinners,” said Rosenberg. “We only ask that it is a dinner with intention. But typically there are three things that are present across the board: wine, challah and candles. The blessings might be in English or there could be full benching (grace after meals) in Hebrew. Someone recently hosted a Shabbat and spin class in which she talked about the body as a spiritual being. Afterward, she shared challah and soup with her guests. Another host had a sushi-making Shabbat. On average, a Shabbat dinner happens with five to 15 people, with the most requested dinner size averaging five to eight persons.”
- Oct 27, 6:00 pm
One-hundred fifty coaches spread across nine cities, including Boston, support OneTable participants who volunteer to host. These coaches are available to deal with logistics that range from deciding what to serve to explaining the various rituals associated with Shabbat dinner. Advice can be dispensed in person or via email. As Rosenberg pointed out, it all depends on what a host may need—there are coaches who become de facto co-hosts of a Shabbat dinner. OneTable financially supports each dinner with the objective of enabling millennials to access a Jewish community worry-free.
At the helm of this innovative enterprise is Aliza Kline. Bostonians may know Kline as the founding executive director of Mayyim Hayyim Community Mikveh. In her latest role, Kline, a social entrepreneur and strategic thinker, set out to understand why Jews in their 20s and 30s were not participating in Jewish life. Kline’s comprehensive findings based on surveys, focus groups and market research confirmed that a mostly virtual life has isolated this generation. Kline took her data and looked to Judaism for a solution.
“Shabbat seemed to be a simple and elegant answer to the problem,” Rosenberg noted. “There are 52 chances to try Shabbat, and there are myriad ways to access and celebrate Shabbat dinner.” Kline also found there was a DIY component inherent in the OneTable concept that appealed to millennials.
Yet among the ultimate outcomes for which OneTable strives is for participants to build a personal Shabbat dinner practice. “Shabbat offers a moment of reflection, of quiet and of unplugging,” said Rosenberg. “That’s particularly important for millennials who are so technology focused. We want to increase their sense of belonging in the Jewish community, as well as foster connections to their Jewish roots.”
Plans are underway for OneTable to establish a more permanent presence in Boston. Rosenberg reported that thus far 148 Shabbat dinners have been celebrated in Boston, a statistic bolstered by the fact that there have been 137 hosts and 2,049 seats at the table. Recent Boston partners have also included Havurah on the Hill, Riverway Project—which sponsored a Shabbat event at Shakespeare in the Park in August—and The Gefilteria, which partnered with Mamaleh’s in Cambridge to present a history of Jewish delicatessens.
That kind of creativity in Shabbat observance will be highlighted on Saturday, Oct. 27, when Massachusetts celebrates its fourth annual MASSCreative #ArtsMatterDay. Arts Matter Shabbat will be observed across the Greater Boston area. The event dovetails with the theme of that week’s Torah Potion, Lech-Lecha, a recounting of Abraham’s spiritual journey. At Moishe House in Brookline, OneTable participants can explore Jewish cuisine with Jeff Gabel, co-founder of Kitchen Kibitz.
Rosenberg and her colleagues hope that, “At the end of the day, millennials will integrate Shabbat throughout their lives. We want them to be ambassadors for Shabbat, and Shabbat dinner is a way to connect to community.”