Young adults gather ’round for Shabbat through OneTable
By Laura Paull
On a drizzly Friday night in early spring, 11 young adults, most of them strangers, knocked one by one at the door of a Victorian building in San Francisco’s Mission District. Within the hour, they were dining around a candlelit table, laughing, clinking glasses and engaging in spirited conversation.
It was just another Shabbat dinner co-hosted by Analucía Lopezrevoredo, 31, Bay Area hub manager of the startup dinner platform OneTable.
Some knew Lopezrevoredo previously, and a few were acquainted with one or two other guests. All of them made new friends at the casual dinner, designed to make the Jewish Friday night ritual amenable and accessible to millennials. That’s the whole point of OneTable, which enables people in their 20s and 30s to host and attend Shabbat dinners anywhere in the U.S.
“We’re leveraging new technology to refresh an ancient tradition,” said executive director Aliza Kline on the phone from OneTable’s New York headquarters.
Created in New York in 2015, the program has expanded to seven “hub” regions, including the Bay Area. Users go to the website where folks hosting Shabbat meals post what they’re offering, how many can come, when and where it is. You can see photos of who’s already attending to help you make your choice. Request a seat at the table, and you’ll find out more about your host and other details. Anyone in the target age group can join and membership is free, as are most of the dinners. Foundation support and partnerships subsidize the costs OneTable hosts incur, up to $150 per event.
A quick browse of the upcoming OneTable events confirms that Shabbat dinner is getting some creative redesigns by this foodie generation. Potlucks are popular, with guests typically contributing wine or desserts.
Earlier this month in the Bay Area (where the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation is one of the funders), there was a Shabbos BBQ, a vegan Spring Shabbat, a “Shabbat of Love and Kindness” in the Mission and a “Valencia MoHo Shabbat” (“MoHo” refers to an outpost of Moishe House). In the Colorado hub there were several Cinco de Mayo Shabbats and a Hawaiian luau to choose from; in New York, everything from a “Taco Shabbat in the Bronx” to a “Wandering Jews of Astoria Potluck” and plenty of Brooklyn rooftop gatherings. There were also private dinners listed, such as a “LGBTQ Jewish Professionals Shabbat” and a “Forbes Under 30 Shabbat,” the latter co-hosted by Forbes and the Paul E. Singer Foundation. (A private dinner is organized by or for a particular group, which uses the platform to reach and inform potential guests.)
“The OneTable website is extremely user-friendly,” reported Arielle Rubinoff, who was a first-time guest at Lopezrevoredo’s dinner. Rubinoff, 24, moved to Hayward from Toronto for chiropractic studies and was eager to expand her circle of friends.
“Getting to enjoy an evening with complete strangers brought together by nothing but a mutual celebration was really special,” she said. “I’m a huge hostess so I may have my own Shabbat dinner one of these days. Either way, I will absolutely attend more.”
An ethnographer and adjunct instructor in social work at Portland State University, the Peruvian-born Lopezrevoredo describes herself as a “gastrodiplomat.”
“Bringing people together to celebrate the end of the workweek and enjoy a meal is something I love to do,” said Lopezrevoredo. “There is no one way to do it. It’s the ritual that counts.”
Gil Shefer, 29, an environmental policy lawyer in San Francisco, likes to alternate hosting and attending other people’s Shabbat dinners a couple times a month. Born in Israel and raised on the East Coast, he said he enjoys OneTable’s flexibility and “laissez-faire approach.”
“When people have autonomy to create the Shabbat of their desires, you end up with incredible variety,” said Shefer, who was at Lopezrevoredo’s dinner that evening. “OneTable has done a great job removing the silos of the Jewish world — Persian, Mexican and Polish Shabbats are open and accessible for all. Bringing lots of different people together around a table is a subversive form of diplomacy that the world could learn a lot from.”
Indeed, Lopezrevoredo’s table was quite international, a reflection of her identity as a Peruvian Sephardic Jew and of her world: Among the guests were three French Jews, co-nationals of her French-Tunisian partner and co-host, 27-year-old Kevin Berrebi; two guests with roots in South Africa; and several Americans.
The ceremonial aspects of Shabbat, including candlelighting and blessings over bread and wine, proved to be universal, and the conversation around the table never lagged. The baked salmon and Moroccan lamb ragout with mint and almonds were a hit, as were the potluck desserts of chocolate cake, macaroons and ice cream.
Philanthropists Paul Singer and Michael Steinhardt (co-founder of Birthright Israel) brought the project to Aliza Kline in 2014 partly in response to the perennial issue of how to keep Jewish youth connected to their heritage in the post-college, pre-parenting years. Kline, a social entrepreneur with a background in nonprofit management, dove into the opportunity.
“I like to create new ways to access community,” she said. “I believe everyone needs a ritual to observe so as not to let life just pass you by. I’ve spent my career making Jewish ritual more accessible.”
The purpose of a ritual like Shabbat may elude those who have not been raised with it; others want to reinvent it to enhance personal meaning. Kline, the daughter of a Reform rabbi whose home in Colorado Springs was a community center for Jewish life, said she continued the practice when she left home and eventually created her own new family; there has scarcely been a Friday night in her life where she has not observed Shabbat in some way. In part, she said, it’s about acknowledging that “there is something bigger than me, as an individual.” She saw in the OneTable concept an opportunity to lower the barriers for others to enjoy Shabbat as well.
Fundamentally, she explained, a ritual is any practice that brings mindfulness to an action. It’s the opposite of a mere habit, which is an action that in repetition becomes automatic, or mindless. The regular practice of Shabbat, she said, serves to refresh us on multiple levels.
The only requirement is to set aside work and spend the evening with people you care about.
“The food is slower in preparation, and the blessing makes you aware of the meal you are about to consume and the value of relationships. The practice leads to mindfulness. And it is all done in community. The only requirement is to set aside work and spend the evening with people you care about.”
Kline had previously worked on a project to bring the mikvah tradition into modern life.
“Shabbat was easier,” she said. “Research shows that having meals with people you like will make you happier and healthier: Mood, digestion and satisfaction are better in company. But societally we’re having a hard time making social eating a regular part of our lives.”
One reason may be that many people in the target demographic move to new cities for jobs, far from family and longtime friends. Sixty percent of OneTable guests are new to the city where they are attending a dinner.
And wherever they go, technology shapes their social habits, for better and for worse. They go to a café to be among people, but they focus on their screens. Instead of going out to eat, they use an app to order in.
“There is plenty of food, but a hunger for face-to-face connection,” Kline said.
The timing of the concept was perfect. A number of other social dining platforms were gaining strength and OneTable’s sleek, user-friendly site was familiar to millennials.
“The style of the intervention, the use of technology, were carefully designed for this stage of life. The idea appeals to the design needs and desires of this demographic. It took off on a crazy scale that can only increase,” Kline said.
After the New York launch in 2015, OneTable opened a second hub in Chicago; Boston, Atlanta, Colorado, the D.C. area and the Bay Area followed throughout 2015 and 2016. Hubs can be opened where there is sufficient interest, regional partners and a suitable local manager.
The organization keeps careful track of the numbers: OneTable provided 10,485 “seats at a table” in 2015; that number almost quadrupled (to 41,687) in 2016. In the first few months of 2017 they’ve already seated 23,741 guests at Shabbat dinners, according to Al Rosenberg, communication director in Chicago. Also for the first time this year, members hosted more than 200 Passover seders, feeding more than 2,300 people.
Since inception, some 5,700 dinners Shabbat dinners have provided 78,508 “seats at the table,” of which roughly half were first-time guests. As of April 2017, some 2,579 active hosts have hosted at least one dinner. Almost half started out as OneTable guests, and then signed on to host.
Rosenberg stressed that while the platform provides participants with a concrete action by which they can express Jewish identity, the purpose of OneTable is to share the Shabbat tradition.
“We have interfaith dinners and even dinners hosted by people who are not Jewish who want to understand what Shabbat means and how they can connect to it,” she said. “We think Shabbat is a really important tool for reflection and community building. We know we live in a world where Jews don’t have only Jewish friends or even family. A lot of our staff members are in interfaith marriages or relationships. No one is turned away.”
OneTable helps prospective hosts step up to the task in multiple ways. Each city has multiple coaches — some are rabbis, some not — who can answer questions on anything from menus to ritual. (The Bay Area currently lists 14 such resource people.) Staffers try to match hosts with the appropriate coach depending on what they want to learn and what type of Shabbat they want to create, with the aim of removing any obstacles.
Kline’s nationwide staff, now grown to 22, checks in with the hosts every week to find out how their events went. Staff members are available for concerns that might arise and are prepared to support people in keeping their homes safe.
When people have autonomy to create the Shabbat of their desires, you end up with incredible variety.
Rosenberg said that while there is always risk when inviting strangers to the table, there have been no negative incidents that she knows about.
“The most I’ve heard is maybe an awkward guest or people who told bad jokes,” she said. “One host told me about a guest who had brought a Tupperware set to bring home all the leftovers.”
In addition to the open dinners and private events that groups can host through the platform, hub managers host frequent “Nosh:pitality” events to introduce new people to OneTable; these are often participatory culinary adventures. Right now, young adults in the Bay Area can sign up for a May 23 event called “The Perfect Cheese Puff” to learn how to make gougères with local French baker Laura Athuil of ChouxSF.
Data gathered by OneTable shows they’re doing something right: 58 percent of participants say that because of their experience with OneTable, it is important to them to make Friday night feel different from the rest of the week, and 57 percent say they are interested in making Shabbat dinner a regular part of their lives.
“We hope OneTable is not the only way or place where Shabbat happens,” Kline said, “but if a whole generation were to reclaim Friday nights, that would be for the good, right?”
For Gil Shefer, the lawyer who attended the recent Mission District dinner, the phenomenon has a pretty clear explanation.
“OneTable is a ‘disruptive’ technology, but in the most positive sense of the word,” he said. “Many people my age are disillusioned by the top-down paradigm of religion. We often crave spirituality and community, but in a form that speaks to us, that reminds us of home or reconnects us with friends. OneTable is a platform for Jews to take ownership of their Judaism, to seek out what it means for them, personally, to be Jewish.
“What prayers will be said, if at all? Will the prayers be in English? What foods will be served? These questions force a host and guest to have an opinion as to what role Judaism should serve in their life. That, in my mind, is a wonderful thing.”
originally ran in J – The Jewish News of Northern California