Hosted Shabbat Dinners: Mingling On A Friday Night

A couple weeks ago I was invited to a hosted Shabbat dinner of 35 20-somethings, of which I, like most who were there, only knew a handful of other people. Despite it being a Shabbat dinner, there were only a few isolated pockets of religious activities during the four-hour evening.

My friend who hosted the meal is Orthodox and would have prayed in a synagogue had he not chosen to organize Friday night services on his rooftop. Praying and music are meaningful to him, so he capitalized on his pre-dinner audience to share a musical Kabbalat Shabbat, the evening prayer service that welcomes Shabbat. Half the group arrived after services though, and it was clear that not everyone arriving late had prayed, or that everyone present even keeps Shabbat. The observance level of each diner though was unimportant. Whether this is related to the Chabad movement's encouragement for each Jew to connect in as much and on whatever level they're willing, or if it's a supposition of being open-minded New Yorkers, is irrelevant. It exemplifies a much broader concept.

The Jewish world is significantly focused on Jewish connections, sometimes even more than it's focused on prayers and "religion." Why this might be true is multifold.

Judaism in its nature is a social religion. Our religious leaders don't live in secluded monasteries but within the community. We value learning Torah with others over learning alone. Whole sections of prayers cannot be said in a group of fewer than 10. We see service to those in our community to be as important, if not more so than service to God. Inviting people for a large dinner to hang out and meet each other fits what it means to act Jewishly -- to connect with other Jews.

Jews spending time together provides an opportunity to do Jewish acts together (Jewish commandments, praying, service projects, etc.), engage in Jewish discourse, meet other Jews (which in turn may encourage other Jewish encounters), potentially facilitate dating Jewish, share Jewish moments, etc. It also allows the host to share something that's meaningful to him. For a practicing Jew, sharing Jewish traditions with others who can understand and appreciate them, which most often means other Jews, is very special. In this case, it was sharing musical prayers and Shabbat dinner with 35 friends and friends-of-friends.

Gather together enthusiastic committed Jews and there's an indescribable atmosphere. Especially at a Shabbat dinner, late into the night with wine and good food, an old Jewish melody might arise, complete with harmony from others' rough voices. Not only is there a feeling of spiritual connectedness, but also of kinship. Everyone is there for a common reason. They share a bond created by a long and rich common historical narrative, including a historical need to be insular and look out for each other due to a long record of persecution.

Connecting Jewishly holds a deeper purpose. Post-Holocaust Judaism puts a huge emphasis on Jews dating and marrying Jewish, both to maintain lineage and for preservation of identity. My generation, which grew up alongside the mushrooming of social networking, takes meeting people into our own hands. We meet people online, in bars and through friends. We have replaced traditional matchmakers with sociable friends who know lots of people, invite others to parties, host dinners and plan get-togethers where their friends can meet.

These dinners tend to be mostly young singles. For various reasons, including self-secluding, realigning of friends by both host and guests, and kids, singles tend to do dinners together and families tend to do dinners together, but mixing the two is less common. As a result, this meal was full of presumably single young Jews, many of them interested in finding a significant other.

For a religion with a long history of persecution, which 70 years ago suffered a genocide murdering one third its total population, preservation is a necessity. There are only 14 million Jews in a world of 6.9 billion. Assimilation is on the rise, and as a result many Jewish kids grow up with minimal Jewish grounding to keep them connected. It is not enough just to give to Jewish charities or attend synagogue on High Holy Days or even every day. Without meaningful connectors a person will become disenchanted and can slip away. For young people, especially in this generation of expanded social networking, the strongest connector is friends and the strongest moments tend to be from socializing. Connecting Jewishly means identifying as Jewish. Any means for young Jews to hang out and make friends in a Jewish setting, like these hosted dinners, is a significant way to keep them connected to their religion so they will stay engaged and raise the next generation to also be connected.

Thus Judaism, on many levels, is and must be about Jewish socializing. Whether this is in hopes that by associating with other Jews or that in your social interactions with other Jews you will engage in inherently Jewish discussions or actions (e.g. praying together, discussing Torah or Judaism, engaging in Jewish commandments), that these occurrences will encourage other Jewish activities, or that you will find a Jewish spouse, these fun interactions maintain interest in identifying as Jewish. And only with this connectedness will we identify and become parents who pass identification on to our children. And without identification, any religion is in peril.