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Trying Potluck for Shabbat

January 26, 2012 By:
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From left, Rochelle and Matt Wizmur, Lisa Friedman and Sophia Raab rekindle Akiba friendships on Shabbat.

Bitter cold air swept into Moishe House on a recent Friday evening as 23-year-old Deborah Shroder hobbled through the front door on crutches, somehow managing to climb the steps to the living room on her knees while carrying a sack of cookies in one hand.

Even with the weather and a sprained ankle working against her, this is Shroder's home for Shabbat. Well, one of them.

She ticked off a half-dozen groups she's frequented for services and meals since last spring, when she'd gotten familiar enough with her doctoral program in biochemistry and biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania to look for Jewish community.

"It's hard to be Jewish alone," Shroder said. "It's kind of depressing and sad."

Statistically speaking, Shabbat, the period of rest from sundown on Friday to an hour after sundown on Saturday, remains the most neglected of the Jewish holidays among non-Orthodox Jews. Only 18 percent of the households responding to the 2009 Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia reported lighting Shabbat candles, figures that come close to national reports.

Here in Center City, however, both organized and grass-roots groups seem to have revived interest in the weekly day of rest, with invitations going out to friends and even strangers to join them for a meal and perhaps a service.

The phenomenon is especially geared to the unaffiliated young professionals.

What's happening isn't groundbreaking, but rather a new version of what was happening in the 1970's, with the burgeoning of the chavurah movement and the search for more personal connections to Judaism, according to Rela Geffen, a local sociologist and expert on American Jewish life.

Since getting together for food is "sort of built into Judaism," Geffen said, the model of Shabbat meals helps create that community.

While social groups have been offering Shabbat programs as often as once a month in recent years, there was a dearth of options about a decade ago, remembered Lettie Switzer, a 32-year-old member of the Conservative Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City.

"If you weren't part of Hillel and you weren't part of a synagogue, you didn't have anywhere to go," said Switzer, a music teacher.

Noticing the same quandary, fellow congregant Shari Goldman Gottlieb, a 30-year-old comparative literature doctoral student at Penn, began hosting potlucks with friends, but the size of their Rittenhouse Square homes limited how many people they could invite.

So in the summer of 2006, Gottlieb and Joanna Slusky got permission to host a monthly, non-denominational "Shabbat Potluck Coalition" at BZBI. In addition to donating space, the synagogue even bought them a separate fridge. To ensure that more observant folks could participate in the vegetarian meal, they came up with a two-table system: one for food cooked in a kosher home that only used hechshered ingredients, the other for items from non-kosher kitchens.

Some meals drew up to 50 people, mostly young adults and recent college graduates looking to do something "kind of Jew-y," Switzer said, but others in their 60s and 70s, too. At least one married couple met at the potluck, and several others made friends who they later had over for Shabbat meals outside the coalition.

For Switzer, who converted to Judaism along with her husband, it was the perfect way to create a Shabbat family after "coming into a community where we had no Jewish connections."

"It's a great steppingstone for people who don't want to be part of a synagogue, at least not yet," said Switzer, who took over for organizer Slusky after she left the country for a new job.

Other than kiddush and grace after meals, Switzer said, "all we're doing is eating. There's nothing overly religious or threatening."

Some potluck-ers have even made their way to other Jewish organizations or services, she said; a few even became synagogue members.

Not long after the coalition formed, Philadelphia became one of the first cities to form a Moishe House, a now international concept that provides rent and programming subsidies to Jewish 20-somethings who agree to host community programs at their home. Shabbat meals became a regular offering, boosted in recent years with sponsorship from Birthright NEXT. Since 2008, Birthright alum and Moishe House residents have held 14,398 meals across the country through the NEXT Shabbat initiative. Of those, 550 were in Philadelphia.

Then, about five years ago, Warren Hoffman co-founded Heymish ("homey" in Yiddish).

Participants coordinate Friday night services through Facebook, meeting in someone's Center City or South Philly home once a month to pray and share a vegetarian meal.

Though the group includes 93 members online, anywhere from 15 to 25 generally show up, so it still feels warm and friendly, true to the name, said Hoffman, who also coordinates programs for the Gershman Y. Many of them are under 40, several are gay and at least half of the regulars observe the laws of Shabbat and kashrut, he said.

"Synagogues don't always meet the need of a younger generation looking for Judaism to be participatory," Hoffman said.

Another central figure in the city's blossoming Shabbat scene appeared when Miriam Steinberg-Egeth moved here in 2006 and became the director of the Grad Student Network, a Hillel of Greater Philadelphia program.

Aside from organizing monthly Shabbat dinners for the network (which attract 80 to 300 people), Steinberg-Egeth and her husband formed Minyan Tikvah, a Saturday morning experience, in hopes of bringing together a community beyond Friday night get-togethers.

Starting in January 2011, Steinberg-Egeth decided to chronicle every Shabbat in a blog titled 25 X 52, denoting the 25-hour length of the holiday, for all 52 weeks of the year. At that time, she said, she was pregnant and thought it would be a cool way to document a major life change while getting readers excited about celebrating Shabbat.

Setting aside time to rest "is such a gift to give yourself at the end of the week, why not?"

Between her weekly "Shablog" reflections and work in the community, she built up a reputation as a point person for those seeking Shabbat community. Aside from inviting people over, Steinberg-Egeth said she's encouraged others to host meals, even if they don't have a lot of space or think they can't cook.

This January, she turned her blog over to the community, soliciting volunteers to post about their Shabbat experiences. So far, she's got bloggers signed up through the end of February. (Meanwhile, she's been working on another blog for the Exponent, atwww.miriamsadvicewell.com.)

Adam Flager, a 28-year-old law clerk, found his niche with a group of fellow graduates from Akiba, now called Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, who started an informal rotating Shabbat club in fall 2009.

Each month, one of them volunteers to cook and host the meal, sending out an invitation via Facebook. "Shabbat was always such a big thing for me growing up and it doesn't matter if you have no religious background, you can appreciate it as this is really quality time spent with your good friends," he said.

Flager said he's glad to see the proliferation of offerings.

Who knows if these kinds of things will cause more people to observe the holiday, he said, but maybe for some unaffiliated Jews, an invitation to a meal could be less intimidating than a formal event.

Once people experience "the fun part" of being Jewish, he suggested, they'll realize there's much more to discover. "We're talking about culture here, a cultural aspect that you can connect with that's not very invasive." 

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