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What Jew Wanna Eat: Shabbat Dinner Connects Jews Outside Synagogue Walls
Saturday, 01 June 2013
By Amy Kritzer

How one chooses to practice being Jewish is personal, but with younger generations moving away from attending synagogue, religious leaders have been left with the dilemma of the best ways to engage them.

Enter the resurgence of organized, informal Shabbat services and dinners outside of the traditional shul walls. There are more than half a dozen of these groups just in the Austin area alone, but each one aims to offer a unique experience so participants can find the group that is most meaningful to them.

When Rabbi Amy Cohen noticed a group of congregants in their 20s and 30s repeatedly attending her Friday night services at Temple Beth Shalom, she suggested a Shabbat dinner that turned into a weekly event. Eventually, they decided to organize the group and name it The Next Generation at Temple Beth Shalom. The group, which meets for Shabbat and various other social and learning events throughout the year, is a diverse mix of Jews in the community. Many participants are not familiar with Hebrew or have recently converted to Judaism and there is no requirement of belonging to a synagogue.

The potluck dinners take place in participants’ homes, and a goal is to teach people how to observe Shabbat as a group. Rabbi Cohen acknowledges that this is a way to get young Jews excited about religion: “People in this age group are not necessarily looking to join a synagogue, but they are looking to connect with other young Jews and the Jewish community.  Temple Beth Shalom has warmly welcomed those young adults who have chosen to become active members of the community because of their involvement with the Next Generation.” The hosts are even people who normally don’t have Shabbat in their homes. They also partake in other rituals such as hanging mezuzot on doors or making challah. Together, the group learns what it means to be Jewish adults by making Shabbat accessible for all. 

People find out through word of mouth and at other events and the group is always adding new fun, accessible activities. This month they are hosting a Havdalah at Pease Park, which includes a short learners service followed by some time to hang out and get to know each other.

Rabbi Rachel Kobrin of Congregation Agudas Achim runs not one but two organizations: Selah, a musical service based in South Austin that attracts young adults both single and coupled, and ATX Havurah, aimed at young Jews all over Austin.

Selah runs as a “satellite Agudas Achim” in South Austin. Instead of expecting the growing population of Jews in South Austin to come up north, Rabbi Kobrin brings the services to them. Though not exclusively for young families, Selah is very family friendly- there is always a babysitter, which makes it easier for participants with young children to attend. The service, which takes place at the community hall at the Faith United Methodist Church has an emphasis on music with non-traditional instruments such as flutes and African drums.

Selah has the feel of a start-up community and Rabbi Kobrin finds the informal nature resonates with a lot of people who didn’t think synagogue was for them: “The beauty of Shabbat is that it inspires us to take time out of our normal week and reconnect”. They have grants so services are often followed by catered meals, and even a website (http://www.selah-austin.org/) Selah regularly draws 100 participants who hear of the next events through Facebook and their mailing list.

ATX Havurah brings spiritual services to people’s homes, followed by a dairy potluck. Since it is much less formal than synagogue (people often sit on the floor during the service) it speaks to young Jews more than the traditional synagogue space. Unlike what many Jews grew up with, the feel is less hierarchical. In contrast, the participants have a part in creating it. This group stemmed from Rabbi Kobrin’s own experiences in rabbinical school: “Jews in their 20s and 30s may not be regular synagogue attendees, but they are often still looking for something that is meaningful and transformative. It’s our job to therefore think more creatively and entrepreneurially about reaching young adults in the venues where they feel most at home. What does it mean for rabbis to leave the walls of their synagogues and bring grassroots, vibrant Judaism into homes, bars, cafes and other venues? These are the questions we are asking at Congregation Agudas Achim, as we engage more people in rich Jewish experiences and continue to grow in our understandings of what we can be as a community.”

Jennifer Dubow, one of the founders of the nondenominational group Shabbat Next Dor aims to “create a culture of the Social Shabbat where people get together, enjoy each other’s company and share in the joy of Shabbat.” The goals of her organization are to build a sense of community, connect Jews, strengthen Jewish identity and welcome both newcomers and established Jews in a comfortable setting. They pair up participants based on age, location and food preferences to create the best Shabbat experience possible.

Though there are quite a few groups to choose from, they are not competitive. The Next Generation has co-sponsored a Shabbat on Austin’s East Side with ATX Havurah. For Rabbi Cohen, the more groups the merrier: “I think its great, I always had ten different options for Shabbat in New York City and Boston.” She loves to co-sponsor with other groups to bring them together and welcomes the opportunity to do more with any other group. Similarly, Selah has worked with YAD. An ultimate goal for all the groups is to create a culture of observing Shabbat long-term. The Shabbat Next Dor crew even has the fun idea to create a Shabbat Finder App that lists all the related activities in town to easily see the options. Of course there should be an app for that! Rabbi Korbin also thinks the increasing number of groups adds to the sense of community: “All the different groups are a huge blessing to Austin.”

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