Welcome to Friday Night: We Saved You a Seat

Guest post by Aliza Kline, executive director at OneTable, and Jessica Minnen, resident rabbi at OneTable

Close your eyes and imagine a Shabbat dinner table. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? When we asked this question to adults in their 20’s and 30’s, some said what you might expect — challah, family, candlelight. Others could place the words of a specific ritual or the melody of a song, and some recalled home cooking and memories of loved ones gathered around the table. But for many, the question led to anxiety: I don’t know, I didn’t grow up with Shabbat; I’ve never been to a Shabbat dinner. For others, the exercise brought up challenges: Shabbat dinner isn’t something I do, it’s something my parents and grandparents did; I don’t know if my friends or my partner would feel comfortable; I don’t know if I would feel comfortable; I don’t have a dining room table; I don’t have the time; I don’t have the money.

At OneTable our goal is to support young adults to create an enduring Friday night dinner practice that is relevant and authentic to them. The Shabbat dinner table is a blank page that allows young adults to tell a story about who they are and what they value. It is a place for radical hospitality and welcome, and a place where they can become, perhaps for the first time, the active producers of their own Jewish experiences. In an age of increasing social divisions and more demands on our time than ever, Shabbat is a weekly reprieve, a social and spiritual gift.


Empowering emerging adults to claim ownership of Jewish experiences that are self-made and personally authentic is a critical part of the shifting Jewish communal landscape. We know that students turn to online social networks and peer-to-peer technologies to add value to their lives, to meet people, and to try new things. Yet we also know that they crave real-life connection. Turned off by institutions, young adults seek authentic ways to engage. Given the rapid pace of daily life, they actively carve out time to relax and delight in details. Friday night has always been a personalized Jewish space to slow down and enjoy time together. Now, more than ever, we need the dinner table. It has the power to bring young people together, and to shape both their Jewish and their shared future. The community is there. All we need to do is save them a seat.


One thing that Friday night allows young adults to practice is ritual. At the table all styles of Jewish practice are equally valid and honored. Part of making Shabbat dinner personal and authentic is taking on ritual and exploring its meaning, not just as rote words and choreography, but as a sort of spiritual technology that accomplishes something we can’t do on our own. Maybe some don’t know the words to kiddush or aren’t ready to lead it in front of a group. Let’s think about the practice, and then let’s put the user in the center. 


The purpose of kiddush is to sanctify Shabbat, to make a toast, so to speak, to the otherness of this day. But the guests don’t know how to make kiddush. What can they do? Where can they start? They can make a toast. And in order to raise their glasses, they need to put down something from this past week, something they don’t want to carry with them into Shabbat. Now that is something everyone at the table can do together, regardless of whether they know the exact words of kiddush. Go around the table, and all the guests share what they are going to put down from the week that was. Now, let’s raise our glasses and toast the weekend that is. L’chaim. We just made kiddush.


If that approach sounds a bit different, it might be because we utilize a methodology called design thinking. Design thinking adapts the best tools of graphic and product designers toward organizational and programmatic questions. When we approach our work through this lens, we always start by placing the proverbial “user” at the heart of the process, seeking to answer the question of what they need. 


The core idea behind design thinking is user-centered design. Who are your people? What do they need? For example, with any population that you are trying engage, ask first what is meaningful and what is valuable to them. How do you find out? Go where they are. Do what they do. If you’re working young adults in their 20s and 30s, go to restaurants and speakeasies. Go to farmer’s markets and supper clubs. How much money do emerging adults have to spend? Where do they spend it? If they’re not at Shabbat dinner on a Friday night, where are they? If they’re at the theater, can you do an event there? If they’re at a party, can you incorporate a dinner before the party? Find out what your target population values, and understand it as valuable. The trick is to introduce these ideas into your programming quickly as possible. Prototype, iterate and prototype again.

OneTable makes space for the voices and experiences of young adults by encouraging them to bring their own voices and experiences to the table. How do we invite participants to reimagine Shabbat dinner on their own terms? One of the first steps toward owning the Shabbat dinner experience is to stop going to the Shabbat dinner in your head. That dinner often looks like a Michelin star meal set in Fiddler on the Roof. Lovely, but not exactly doable. What might happen if we stop going to that dinner, the one in our head, the perfect one? This is Shabbat — it belongs to each of us.


In the case of designing Shabbat programming for our population, we asked them what they need and value. Whether it was a social experience, a technological refuge, home-cooked food, a spiritual connection — we observed, asked and did everything we could to get their point of view. In a Federation, your goal is to get out of the building. Meet participants in their homes, in the places where they already are, doing what they already do, and then introduce Jewish ways of doing and being. Do we have an end goal? Yes. And so should you. Our end goal is enduring practice because we thinking ending the week with intention with good food, good wine and good people is good for you. What will your goal be? And where will you find your users? 


For OneTable, we have found that the programmatic possibilities are almost endless, and driven by the participants themselves. If they think they can’t afford it? Check out Spoon University's tips for making five meals for $25. Get four friends to chip in $5 and you’re in for quite an adventure. If they think they can’t cook? Take that store-bought challah out of the plastic bag, order in food and put it all on real plates. Kindle some Shabbat light. Sit on the floor. It’s a small shift, but passing around the palak paneer in a real bowl and eating it with real cutlery by candlelight makes a huge difference. If they think they don’t have space? Shabbat is portable. It happens wherever they are: park, a rooftop, a restaurant, an art gallery, a moveable feast from dorm room to dorm room. Have Shabbat dinner, will travel. Perhaps they will be the first to create an interactive Shabbat dinner experience with clues that lead guests from one location to the next, with a different course at each stop. 


It’s Friday night. Anything is possible.


Where are the student and participant voices in education and engagement initiatives? How do we include student voices in our process and our outcomes? These are the questions that we asked Aliza Kline and Jessica Minnen, respectively, executive director and resident rabbi at OneTable, to address. As an online and in-person community, OneTable helps post-college people in their 20s and 30s find, enjoy, and share Shabbat dinners to make the most of their Friday night and enjoy the best of life together. 

You can reach Aliza at Aliza@onetable.org and Jessica at Jessica@onetable.org

Parts of this blog post were previously shared in a post for Hillel U.