Guess who’s coming for Shabbas?
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Guess who’s coming for Shabbas?

Dinners nurture connections among congregation families

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The Finkel and Lipke families celebrate Shabbat over dinner together.

In late October 2014, the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel began a program that is already bearing rich fruit.

Modeling their “Guess Who’s Coming for Shabbas” program on a similar venture launched in a Pennsylvania synagogue, the congregation already has connected nearly two dozen families. And many more are planning to participate, according to Rabbi Ronald Roth, religious leader of the Fair Lawn congregation.

Begun in 2012 by Debbie Albert, a member of Temple Sinai in Dresher, Pa., the goal of the Shabbat initiative is to bring congregants together, using Friday night dinners as the initial meeting point. In a 2013 article written for the Conservative movement’s biannual magazine, CJ: Voices of Conservative Judaism, Ms. Albert called the program a living memorial to her father, Bernie Albert, and said it was designed to “engage the unengaged, be interactive, and help strengthen our congregation.”

“I read about it and felt that I wanted to do it here, providing an opportunity for people to form closer relationships with each other and celebrate Shabbat together,” Rabbi Roth said. “I announced it on the High Holidays and had one or two classes with potential hosts.”

In a list of FAQs published in the synagogue’s January 2015 issue of the congregational newsletter, Rabbi Roth wrote that the goal of the program is “to help our members get to know each other and to create meaningful memories…. There is an essential sense of caring and relationships that is part of being a member of a synagogue. We want to foster those relationships. They can be formed and strengthened around the Shabbat table.”

He also noted that he wanted members “to step out of their comfort zones,” inviting guests – whether one or two families – they do not know, or do not know very well.

Rabbi Roth stressed that the program, coordinated by congregant Donna Pasternak, is “not just for people who are, or are not, observant. This is about having one Friday night Shabbat dinner.” He said that the synagogue provides materials, in print and online, for people who are not sure how to host a Shabbat dinner. In addition, he said, “I will personally meet with anyone who needs help.”

The week of the dinner, hosts are given a carry bag containing challah, discussion suggestions, games for children, and brochures containing the Shabbat B’rachot.

“All [they] need to do is invite others,” Rabbi Roth said.

Since congregants differ in their observance of kashrut, Rabbi Roth said the synagogue would match hosts and guests according to their levels of observance. And while hosts are free to invite guests of their own choosing, the synagogue can help match families that are similar in age or in the number and ages of their children.

Rabbi Roth said there is no expectation that the invitations will be reciprocal. While he hopes that guests will offer to serve as hosts in the future, that is not a condition of participation. Nor should congregants worry that this is a veiled attempt to make them more observant.

“This is not about changing your life,” Rabbi Roth said. “It is about creating community.” It is targeted to all members of the congregation, regardless of age, marital status, or other similar considerations.

Diana Finkel of Fair Lawn, who hosted a Shabbat dinner in October together with her husband, Steven, said she invited the family of her daughter’s soccer coach. Her guests have two children. She has five – ranging in age from 1 1/2 to 17. Because her guests maintain a higher level of kashrut than does her own family, Ms. Finkel said she discussed the matter with them in advance.

“I asked them, how kosher?” she said.

Ultimately, she decided to buy the meal from a kosher deli. In addition, she bought paper goods for serving and containers for heating and storing the food. The guests brought dessert.

Ms. Finkel, who is part of the synagogue’s membership committee, said that her family used some of the materials provided in the shul’s Shabbat bag, including the children’s games and questions for discussion.

“They were ‘get to know you, break the ice’ questions, such as who do you think was the most important Jewish person?”

She said that she was motivated to participate in the program because “I think the shul should be about more than High Holiday services and Hebrew school. I want to breed closeness in the community. People always speak to the same 10 people [at synagogue]. This will make everyone feel more connected – and that’s the key to staying active in the community. It’s to motivate people and get them more involved.

“I think a shul should be your family and your home,” she said. “These are your friends and extended family, but you don’t know who they are until they come over and you meet them.”

She said she and her husband have continued building the relationship begun at the Shabbat dinner they hosted, and they plan to host more dinners in the future.

Wendy and Michael Grinberg hosted dinners in October and December and were guests at a dinner in November. “We planned to host [in November] but the people couldn’t make it,” she said, so the family was rematched and became guests instead.

“We observe Shabbat, but it’s difficult to invite guests since we have little kids, 6 and 4,” she said. “Also, my husband works in New York City” and sometimes gets home late. The same is true of many of their friends.

As hosts in the synagogue program, the Grinbergs invited families their children know – one with a connection to their daughter’s preschool, and the other to her son’s Sunday school class.

“Having guests is a way of making friends,” Ms. Grinberg said. She is a member of the shul’s executive committee and chair of programming for young families. Her family moved to Fair Lawn in 2007 “and joined the shul right away,” she continued. “When we were guests, we used the question cards” that came in the Shabbat bag the synagogue provided. At her own home, the children played with square puzzles, “which we used as place cards.”

Ms. Grinberg said the two families “got on the same page in terms of level of kashrut” before the dinner. They also discussed other issues, such as what candle-lighting time would be acceptable. “I enjoy hosting, but I also appreciate being invited as a guest,” she said. “They’re both nice. It’s about increasing social contacts.”

Rabbi Roth said, “Our hope is to grow the program exponentially, with invited guests then serving as hosts in subsequent months, leading to 100 percent inclusion of our members by the end of the year.” He pointed out that after the first two Shabbat dinners, more than 85 people had already participated. Future programs are planned for February 27 and May 1.

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