Setting the ‘American Table’

Setting the ‘American Table’

In the summer of ‘001, Hoboken resident Ken Schept began thinking about a way to project the central mission of the American Jewish Committee, which he serves as marketing consultant. "We do so many activities [on behalf of] intergroup relations," he said. "I was looking for a way to combine it, to make it clear."

What he ultimately created, "America’s Table" — which Schept described as a kind of "Thanksgiving Hagaddah" — took shape following Sept. 11. "It was clear that we needed to have words to help us heal together," he said. "We needed to evoke and re-evoke the sense of unity" that immediately followed the events of that day.

Thanksgiving seemed like the perfect vehicle to help convey this message. Everyone incorporates "food, family, and football," into the holiday celebration, said Schept. "What was missing was the element of reflection, food for thought."

The first version of the booklet, published in the basement of AJCommittee in ‘001, was "Jewish in voice and content," he said, noting that it was mainly sent out to the membership of the organization. Subsequent editions recognized the need to be "more universal, to go back to our original intention and help us express our respect for diversity," said Schept, president of the United Synagogue of Hoboken, adding that "what the book should look like evolved over time."

The ‘0-page book "tells America’s story," he said, "and helps all, regardless of ethnicity or faith, express gratitude for being part of it." Schept is hopeful that the book, now used widely at interfaith services and by community organizations, will find its way onto the tables of individual families all over the country, to be read on Thankgiving before the meal as part of a new ritual.

The format — a "universal" narration, which remains constant each year, accompanied by profiles of men and women whose lives "illustrate the power of diversity and democratic values" — was designed to help Americans find common ground in a world where, often, differences are considered threatening, said Schept. The people profiled are recommended by AJCommittee chapters and are largely drawn from their interfaith contacts.

While AJCommittee printed a few thousand copies in ‘001, this year it will print more than 1 million. The organization is now in its third year of a partnership with The New York Times, which will help distribute the booklet, inserting it into the Times Magazine on Nov. 1’. Also this year, the publication will have a presence on the AJCommittee Website (, and the content for this and previous years will be able to be downloaded.

According to Allyson Gall, New Jersey area director of AJCommittee, one of the people profiled in the booklet this year is Monsignor John Gilchrist of the Archdiocese of Newark. Also included is Eboo Patel, a Muslim leader from Chicago, who will speak on Dec. 1′ in River Edge at a community-wide forum sponsored by AJCommittee and the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Susan Shapiro, associate director of the AJCommittee’s New Jersey office, said the booklet has been sent to clergy councils throughout the state and that her group will use it in Summit at a Nov. 15 program on immigration.

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