The Shabbatluck Phenomenon

Shabbat potlucks are popping up everywhere. In Cincinnati, Shabbat potlucks are making a difference, as people rave about the strong sense of community these dinners bring. One young professional from that community shared: “It was, and is, amazing to be a part of this young Jewish community. We marveled that people, clearly of so many different backgrounds that, quite honestly, would never socialize together outside of the Jewish scene, came together to enjoy each other’s company and share in Shabbat.” Right here in DC hundreds of Jewish young professionals gather for informal Shabbat dinners through Washington DCJCC’s Shabbat cluster program.

What is it about Shabbat potlucks that win everyone over? Is it the relaxed, informal, ambiance that makes meeting other Jewish people easier? It can certainly be less of a scene and a more intimate way to forge relationships (though for some, big organizational dinners are actually less intimidating).

Or is it the grassroots community-building that has Shabbat potlucks booming among young adults? We also see this grassroots community building with independent minyanim, like DC Minyan at Rosh Pina at the Washington DCJCC. New forms of community are also increasing at an exponential rate, such as Moishe Houses and Ravenna Kibbutz in Seattle, which serve as centers for Jewish conversation and social gathering.  In fact, a recent study entitled “Generation of Change: How Leaders in Their Twenties and Thirties Are Reshaping Jewish Life,” conducted under the auspices of the AVI CHAI Foundation, reveals that greater proportions of young leaders stand aloof from establishment organizations. Independent programs and start-ups have been created by young leaders as an alternative. The Presentense ConnectGen Felllowship is a program that assists these young leaders launch their entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship. One venture through the Washington DCJCC and the ConnectGEN program is a Young Professional Service Learning trip to Assist/Visit Holocaust Survivors in Miami Beach, FL from June 14-19.

But perhaps young Jewish professionals gravitate to Shabbat Potlucks because it gives them a sense of a home away from home.  For many young professionals in DC, ones hometown is often thousands of miles away. Home-cooked potlucks, with everyone contributing a different dish, can create a surrogate home.  On college campuses thousands of Jewish college students flock to campus the Chabad Houses for that very reason. A study entitled, “Home Away From Home: A Research Study of the Shabbos Experience on Five University Campuses: An Information Model for Working with Young Jewish Adults,” conducted by Experiential Jewish Education Scholars Robert Chazan & David Bryfman, discusses the appeal of Chabad for providing a warm family environment to students. They find that young adults who are in the developmental stage of separating from home and family crave the warmth and roots that home represents. Interestingly, the study discloses that even female college students with stronger feminist ideologies assisted the Rabbi’s wife (often on Thursdays) prior to Shabbat dinner and helped her prepare the large Shabbat meals. This need for a home away from home can certainly translate to the desires of young professionals as well.

In my own personal experience as a young professional in New York and Washington DC, I can affirm that these informal Shabbat dinners were definitely a seminal part of my young adult life. I have many fond memories of Shabbat potlucks on Upper West Side rooftops, great conversations with girls that became best friends, and some of the most interesting people I have met. If you have never tried one before, I urge you to create your own. Most of the work involved is the coordination–send out an Evite to people  from different places, co- workers, a friend from the gym, old friends, or new friends and create a wonderful  Shabbat event in your home!

What are your thoughts about this growing phenomenon among young Jewish adults?

From the Archives: Samuel Heilman on the Life and Afterlife of the Rebbe

Samuel Heilman was recorded live at the Washington DCJCC on October 21, 2010 as part of the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival.  He is co-author of The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson — a powerful biography filled with mystery and intrigue, this book tells how one man revitalized a Hasidic community on the verge of collapse and was swept away by his beliefs and expectations, thinking that death could be denied and history altered.

Right click and “save link as” to download as an MP3.

Or listen online:

Beyond Borat or My Lunch With the Chief Rabbi of Kazakhstan

I swear I am not telling this story because this post continues to get the heaviest traffic on the Blog at 16th and Q. This really happened. I didn’t seek it out, and as far as I can tell, there were no hidden cameras or badly accented British Jews present when I sat down to lunch with Rabbi Yeshaya E. Cohen, the Chief Rabbi and Head Shliach of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen with his delegation and Washington DCJCC CEO Arna Meyer Mickelson

Rabbi Yeshaya Cohen with his delegation and Washington DCJCC CEO Arna Meyer Mickelson

The truth of it is, that being in Washington, DC we get a pretty reliable stream of foreign visitors on semi-official visits who put us on their itinerary seeking contact with the local Jewish community. Last month it was a group of Holocaust educators from Poland. Before that we had a delegation from various African countries participating in our Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. You get the point. So somehow we ended up on the itinerary of Rabbi Cohen.

And let me get this out of the way: we didn’t talk about Borat. I didn’t ask him if anyone had ever jokingly threatened to throw the Jew down the well. He didn’t show me a picture of his pet chicken. To have gone into any of this, even as a joke would have been incredibly disrespectful, not to mention juvenile and unprofessional.

So naturally I was biting my tongue the entire time.

In fact, Rabbi Cohen was an incredibly charming, warm and engaging lunch companion — and if I had had the bad taste to bring up Borat, he probably would have taken that too in-stride with good humor.  Instead, we spoke a great deal about Kazakhstan’s heritage of religious tolerance, dating back to World War II when many Jewish families fleeing eastward found themselves in places like Uzebekistan and Kazakhstan. He talked to us a little bit about the Jewish community in Kazakhstan today which stands at around 40,000 people — more than I would have guessed. The Rabbi painted a picture of a community different from the one I carry around in my head of a former Soviet Republic. Instead of being comprised of those too elderly to emigrate, he told us of a dynamic and young community, building new facilities to accomodate a growing need for Jewish community. He spoke of former emigres returning to Kazakhstan, some to live and others to make major business investments. He showed us pictures of children playing at their Chabad-sponsored camps, beautiful new community centers and auditoriums filled with Jews of all ages. It was in-fact quite inspiring to see the work that they do.

It’s a shame that the image most of us have of Jewish life in Kazakhstan is so wide of the mark.

But, Rabbi Cohen is not on some anti-Borat image enhancement tour to make glorious the Jews of Kazakhstan (sorry, couldn’t help it). He’s in town with a very specifc agenda — the repeal of the Jackson-Vanick Amendment which currently prevents Kazakhstan from receiving “most favored nation” trading status. The Rabbi argues in his talking points, that while Jackson-Vanick served an important purpose during the Cold War applying pressure to allow free Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union, it is now a “relic.” He points to the thriving of his own community and his apparent ease of life as a very visible Orthodox Jew in Almaty as evidence of Kazakhstan’s moral fitness. He also draws a clear distinction between the resurgence of anti-Semitism seen in Russia and claims that it has no counterpart in Kazakhstan.

I told him that our agency was not really well positioned to help his cause either way. There are plenty of people out there who are expert in this issue and better placed to advocate for or against such a repeal. I did promise to write about our lunch and what a revealing conversation we had about the amazing community he leads in a place where we don’t too often think about thriving Jewish life. For that, he gets from me a humble and admiring Yesher Koach.

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