Here's a story from a Shabbat meal a few months ago. My roommates and I decided we were gonna make a meal - a "Heart to Heart" meal. So we each thought of some people we could invite and set out to invite them. There was this one girl who I had run into once last year, with a very interesting relationship to Judaism. She went to a Jewish school growing up but for some reason, left there totally hating Judaism, religious Jews, and anything associated with it. So much so that, now in Penn, when a Jewish friend of hers once asked her if she wanted to work on homework together in Hillel, she firmly refused to step foot into the building.
This girl happened to be lab partners with my roommate, and we decided we had to invite her, which he did via facebook. We were sure she'd say "This is so weird, stop trying to convert me" or "I hate Shabbat and Jews so don't talk to me again" but to our surprise, she responded that she'd love to come! We called the meal for 6:30 and by 7, most of the guests had arrived - except her. After conferring with each other, we decided to start without her, thinking "Okay, she got scared away, or intimidated, or never really wanted to come in the first place". Either way, there were other people at the meal for whom this was an important experience and we began, explaining the Shabbat rituals, getting into interesting conversations, etc.
At 8:30 there was a knock at the door. I went to answer it and there she was, rushing to blurt out apologies for being late, she just got back from a trip, etc. I brushed off her apologies, introduced myself and welcomed her to the meal, getting her a seat and offering her a plate of food. The truth is, I don't even think she ate anything - maybe she already ate, or maybe she didn't trust the kashrut :) The meal went on for maybe another hour - we chatted, laughed, ate, and by 9:45 everyone had left. Before she departed (she had to go run off to meet a friend), that girl came over and thanked us for a wonderful time. Afterward, when we were cleaning up, my roommates and I congratulated ourselves on a Shabbat meal well done and satisfied that at the very least, we provided a bunch of Jews with a positive Jewish experience.
After Shabbat, my roommates and I received the following email:
"Thank you so much for an incredible Friday evening. I don't know if you realize, or if I can begin to express, the extent to which dinner with you and your friends affected me. I was surprised by how familiar your Shabbat table felt; it was exactly what I needed to finally feel at home and anchored in a community, for the first time at Penn. Maybe I'll even run into you at Hillel one of these days :) I hope that it suffices to simply say thank you and I hope you understand what I mean by that."
I literally almost started crying. I don't want to say too much, as this speaks for itself, but one thing I noted was that she had actually missed the whole Shabbat part - kiddush, shalom aleichem, some explaining - nor did she eat much of the food. All we actually had were some good, fun conversations, about classes, fun things in life, Ice Cube, ya know, nothing too special. But in that simple, intimate, experience lies a powerful potential and somehow, it helped make her feel comfortable. It really doesn't take much, other than building up the courage to invite them and for them to come.
When I saw her at Shabbat dinner a few weeks later, she said, with a smile on her face: "Hart - this is all your fault that I'm here!" What can I say, I'm just a messenger ;)