Ahhh, so much to write about - speaking tour 2010... Israel in general... next year... DC... I'll get to it all soon, I promise. For now, one quick story which happened yesterday, which I must share. To catch you all up briefly, I'm working this summer in Washington DC with/for Hillel International, as a summer intern. (Though in reality, I'm planning for next year and how to take Heart to Heart national.) Anyway, so I was talking with some of the other interns in the office - they're all college students, involved in their local Hillels, interested in engagement and Hillel's strategy, etc. I started telling them about Heart to Heart and what I've been starting and trying to spread, including some of the programs we run (e.g. Shabbat dinners, Hebrew classes, etc.) One of the girls asked me where I run the dinners, to which I responded (in typical Third Space language) - in my dorm room, in friends' apartment, off-campus houses, etc. "So which rabbi runs the meals?", she asked me. I was stunned - that thought had never even occurred to me, that I had to have a rabbi run everything. "Well, none.", I answered, "We do it ourselves, me, my friends." "What?!", she responded, "So who explains things? Who talks when everyone is eating?" As I tried to explain how the meals work, the other girl turned to her and said "Don't you see? We've been thinking about it all wrong."
When I told the story to my mom, she pointed out something interesting. For people who didn't grow up in religious homes, their only perception of Shabbat and of ritual Jewish observance was in the synagogue or in school or in a Chabad house, with the rabbi telling everyone what to do. Many people don't know, or didn't even think to learn, that they could do it themselves - they can run their own Shabbat dinners, teach their own Judaism, forge their own paths. Much of institutional Judaism's failing is the lack of empowerment - relying exclusively (not that any reliance is bad, but exclusive reliance is problematic) on rabbis and others, thus becoming lazy, ignorant and apathetic about their Judaism. People need to realize that they can do it themselves, they can help mold their own Jewish identities and create the Jewish future they so desire. It's not so simple and it takes many things, but the first thing is realizing that the Gd-given power rests within you.
Having done a lot of these "Heart to Heart" Shabbat dinners (over 40!), there are many things I've learned - some of which I came across by accident but which have proven to be very helpful. Here I'll share one such practice: One of the best things about the meals is that there's no set script - after explaining shalom aleichem, kiddush, and making motzi, we just go with the flow. And it always works, conversations spontaneously occur, people meet everyone around them and a certain level of comfort pervades the atmosphere. But it's always nice to help that process along, and hence the invention of ice breakers - where everyone goes around the table and introduces themselves as well as something about themselves. The big dilemma is always what should the ice breaker be? Something serious? Something funny? Something original? Something Jewish?
Something I've started using is "What's your favorite YouTube video?". I think it's great for a number of reasons, all of which I've seen borne out. Firstly, because everyone watches YouTube - this shows a common cultural language and is something over which everyone can bond. I don't know if people actually think that Orthodox/religious students don't watch YouTube or have their fingers on the pulses of pop culture, but this sure dispels that notion. The best is when people affirm each other's choices ("Oh man, I love that one too!"), instantly giving people a sense of validation and belonging. It also jump starts conversations, and gets people comfortable talking and sharing with everyone else at the table. Also, people often choose funny videos, leading to spontaneous and contageous laughter. Some people choose serious and important videos, which often lead to meaningful conversations. People's choices also tell a lot about them - their interests, their sense of humor, how much time they waste online, etc - which is exactly what you want out of the ice-breaker. Other than breaking the ice.
Another hard question is how to follow-up with people - you don't want to make it sound like you're required to send them a form-email saying "Thank you for coming." You want to make it real; you want to make it personal. What I started doing was emailing everyone from the meal with a link to my favorite video, as well as a line or two saying how wonderful it was sharing Shabbat with them. Then I'd get someone else to reply-all with their video, and if it catches on, you can start off a whole little email chain. (The dynamics for that to happen are a whole other story.) Once when we did it, someone replied that she had such a good time and wanted to do it again soon! So simple, yet so powerful.
The video I often pick is this one:
- I really do love it!
- I'm in it!
- I get to tell people how it happened: an impromptu group of people joining together to celebrate Judaism in a joyous, musical, magical and communal manner - not unlike what Shabbat dinner itself is.
- And because it's Jewish, but also cool and actually pretty good. And pretty popular - over 1,500 hits!
So when I send out the email to everyone after shabbat, I title it "Who's that good looking guitar player?" ;)
I want to tell you about something we recently did at Penn - and which you can all do as well. Every fall, Penn has an activities fair, at which around 300 groups set up booths on Locust Walk (the main college thoroughfare) and thousands of people walk by, looking for things in which to get involved. There are political groups, fraternities, sports teams, performing arts groups, and religious groups - including your classic kiruv organizations. So I set up a table on Locust Walk (I registered too late, but they let me bring my own table) and I made it look like a Shabbat table - a nice white tablecloth, two silver candlesticks and lit candles, a challah board + 2 challot + a challah cover, a silver kiddush cup filled with grape juice, and little shot glasses of grape juice alongside it, and a plate of rugelach. At the foot of the table I had a big sign that said "HELLO! MY NAME IS SHABBAT", kinduv like a big nametag. Then I stood there, smiled, and waited. And people came over - hundreds of people, mostly people I've never seen before. They would pass by, see the table, smile, see me smiling, walk over and we'd start talking. They'd ask what this was, and I'd say "It's a Shabbat table". Curious, they'd ask what my group was, and I'd say "It's just a bunch of students inviting other students for Shabbat means - old friends and new friends, like you!". Excited, some of them would ask how this is different then Hillel, as they went there once, or were thinking of maybe going there, and I'd say "I love Hillel and go there sometimes but it could be a little overwhelming. This is just a bunch of students in a more intimate, friendly atmosphere, sharing Shabbat for free on different places around campus - in the Quad, campus apartment, off-campus houses, etc." Then I'd say that if they wanted to get invited to meals, or find out more, they could sign up (I had a pad of paper and a pen).
In about four hours, I got over 115 people to sign, probably >90 of whom were not observant (and only 3 non-Jews). Most were freshmen, some of them were upperclassman; one guy said he was a senior, Jewish, never been to Shabbat before in college but thought this was the best idea ever and wants to come. We also had magnets which say "Wanna join us for a free, student-led Shabbat Dinner? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org" (that email address forwards to me) and we gave out nearly 200 magnets. Now we just have to invite these people to meals - which are easy, free, and numerous people in Orthodox Community at Penn have already told me they'd love to help.
The whole thing (not counting the magnets) cost around $25 - which is almost nothing! And 4 hours of smiling, which actually made my week, and went by way too fast. I don't know what your colleges have and how you could adapt this, but if you could, you really should. It's such a great way to meet people and invite them to meals - and it's not weird/proselytizing/intrusive at all - people will come to you if you're friendly and welcoming.
If you need any help or want to find out more, don't hesitate to ask!
Ah, the first meal. I remember it like yesterday... in the first meeting, we had decided upon making a Shabbat meal as a means to share a meaningful Jewish experience with friends who were never privy to its beauty. I asked if anyone had people in mind to invite and one girl blurted out that practically her entire dorm hall was Jewish but not religious. And just like that, before anyone else could add any suggestions of their own, we had finalized the invite list for the meal. For funding, I had been directed to an organization called "Project Shabbat" which pretty much gives money to religious kids on college campuses to make Shabbat meals for students who don't normally 'do' Shabbat - perfect! A few emails and phone calls later, we had the promise of monetary reimbursement for the meal. Later that week, I sent out an email to everyone I had spoken to, asking for volunteers to help cook for the meal. Due in no small part to the amazing people I am privileged to know at Penn, we soon had a whole meal signed up to be cooked. The next few weeks were filled with anxiety - when would the meal be (Friday, February 22nd @8pm), who's coming (we finally finalized on 5 Shabbat-observant students to come - enough to lead the meal and discussions at the meal, but not too many that it overwhelms the non-Shabbat observers; we then had to make sure all the invited people were actually coming), where the meal was going to be (we decided on one of the lounges in the Quad - local for the mostly-freshman guest list), etc. And then it was Friday afternoon, the food was cooked and I left for kabbalat Shabbat with my heart beating fast. I remember it being a very inspiring kabbalat Shabbat, and with people around me giving me wishes of good luck and godspeed, I was encouraged, but all the more nervous. After davening, I ran back to my room with a friend who was also helping make the meal to retrieve the food. On the way to my room, we saw a mutual friend of ours on his way towards Hillel. We had both met him when he began coming to Hillel a few times, but not being part of any religious or social groups, we were two of the few people who he knew there. Knowing that, and sensing his fear of going there alone and missing out on what we were up to, we invited him along. After packing up the food in suitcases, we quickly brought it over to the Quad, where the meal was scheduled. By the entranceway to the Quad, I saw someone else who I recognized from the few times I had met him at Hillel. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he was waiting for his laundry. "Wanna come to a Shabbat meal?", I asked him. "Where is it?", he responded, seemingly not so interested in going out of his way somewhere. "It's right here in the Quad, in the Goldberg lounge", I answered. "Woah! That's right where I live! Really? A Shabbat meal in the Quad? Yeah, I'm coming!" - and just like that we picked up another guest. And then we were there, the table was set, the food was laid out and 15 of us were sitting around the Shabbat table.
It's hard to go into every detail of the meal (how we explained things, what conversations were had, etc.) but the details were key, and they worked out very well. Just to highlight a few, we borrowed a sparkling silver cup for Kiddush, adding to the exquisite grandeur of the experience (thanks Binyamin - I told you it would be worth it) and we intermingled the observant and non-observant students to promote interaction and discussions. It was an interesting bunch - 5 observant students, 1 non-Jewish missionary, a few totally unaffiliated students and the remainder were students who grew up going to Jewish schools but never really got into Judaism in college. Because of this, singing the songs of Shalom Aleichem and Kiddush were great, as most people could sing along, even if they hadn't done so in quite a while. We went through the different ceremonies of the meal along with very brief explanations and then we got to the food, over which the table broke into smaller group discussions. Most of the people stayed for a good two hours and before leaving, told us that they had a great time and would love to do it again. We could tell that it was a great experience for these people - they enjoyed it, they got to meet other Jewish students over the timeless Jewish meeting place of Shabbat, and they got to reconnect to a bit of what they might've missed and reminisced from home.
What was even more remarkable was that three students stayed behind for close to 4 hours - they wanted to sing z'mirot, and talk more about Judaism on campus, and get involved in social and educational programming and just talk more. I mean, who stays at Shabbat dinners for 4 hours?! One of those students (who I had never seen/met before) told her story: she had grown up kinduv-Conservative and Shabbat was something her family would do. So when she came to college as a freshman, the first Friday night she showed up at Hillel to try Shabbat. And she hated it - there were too many people, it was too unfriendly, too religious, no one said hello to her, she got turned off and she never came back. Until tonight, when her hallmate invited her to this meal and here she was. She said she couldn't believe how beautiful Shabbat could be, and with other students, at college; she wanted to do this next week, every week, and invite all her friends. We told her that we couldn't do this every week but that if she came to Hillel next Friday night, we'd be there and introduce her to our friends. She agreed, and she came back the next week, and met a whole bunch of nice, friendly people (they do exist, it's just sometimes hard for people to find them). Since then, this girl has gone on a journey of reconnecting to Judaism that is largely between her and God, helped in part by support of the wonderful people who make up the Jewish community at Penn. She is now a fully observant and highly religious and active member of the Orthodox Community at Penn, and it is my great honor to count her among my friends. I'm not saying that this one meal was the the magical key that changed her life, but I think it's clear as to the role it played in the greater process.
Another one of the students who stayed behind was the one who we dragged along when we saw him walking to Hillel. Since that meal, he also started coming to Hillel more and becoming more involved in Jewish activities. The first Shabbat of the following year, he saw me at Shabbat dinner at Hillel and we started talking. He told me that the previous year as a freshman, he didn't come to Hillel in the very beginning (maybe due to discomfort, or needing time to find his place, or who knows what), which he afterward realized put him at a disadvantage in terms of being part of different groups or communities. He felt, rightfully so, that everyone there knew each other and that people divided up into their little cliques, leaving someone like him alone on the outside. But, he said, you and a few other people (not coincidentally, members of the then-unofficial 'Heart to Heart') would always come over to me when I was sitting alone at Hillel and talk to me, sit with me, and make me feel like I mattered. "You don't know what that did to me, and how that affected me", he said. "And that Shabbat meal last year in the Quad - that was the best Shabbat of my life. All of that has really inspired me to come here more, become more knowledgeable about and more familiar with Judaism - so that I can be to others what you were to me." He then started coming every Friday night after that to make kiddush with me and sing z'mirot (he is a wonderful singer and a member of one of Penn's prestigious singing-and-acting groups) and he loved learning and singing new z'mirot. He told me his goal for the year was to learn how to bentch, like his grandfather used to do, so after dinner one Friday night, we sat for an hour going through all of bentching, culminating in singing "Na'ar Hayiti" - a family tradition of mine that he loved.
And all this just because one Sunday evening some students decided to make a Shabbat meal, and on one Friday night 5 religious students shared the beauty of Shabbat with some new friends.
I can't even make this stuff up. But I can, and have, made it happen again. And so can you. I've been writing up a guide to Shabbat dinners like these, based on a year-and-a-half of experience and over a dozen similarly styled Shabbat dinners - check it out here. Feel free to use whatever you want from it, and to add to it (that's why it's a wiki) - obviously not everything I say will work for you but some of it might be useful. But more importantly, sit down with a bunch of similarly thinking friends and think how you can translate this into your setting. It starts with that, and God only knows where it will go from there.
In honor of the beginning of CPI09 and having remembered that I actually wrote my first blogpost just about a year ago, I'm re-posting it here: Day 7: Getting Ready for Camp
Monday, July 21st, 2008.Today was our first real day in Yerucham – and boy was it a good one. Partially it was just so nice to finally be doing something, after what seemed like weeks and weeks of training and talking; we spent most of the day decorating the rooms in which we will be working with multinational decor, in the spirit of our Olympic-themed camp.But while that was definitely a great group bonding experience and a great outlet for our creativity and enthusiasm, what really got me excited was just being here. After all we've heard about the development, the dirty streets, the dry heat and the despondent people, it was great to be here on my own and to be able to experience it for myself.And let me tell you – there were some very gorgeous buildings and parks, beautiful sidewalks, manageable temperatures (including a soothing evening cool) and very friendly people (I've already had a number of people come up to me to ask me who I was and what I was doing here). The truth is, I think I've already fallen in love with this city and would like to invite anyone who doesn't believe me to come see it for themselves.As I walked down the streets of this beautiful city, I thought about the point of coming here, and about how we're supposed to 'make a difference'. When I actually saw the people and realized that they wouldn't come running to our feet for words of wisdom, I began to wonder if it was even realistic to set such grand goals. How are we, a bunch of young college students, supposed to make a difference in a city of thousands?As I was thinking about that, I saw some empty wrappers on the streets – not like in a slum, but like it is in any regular town or city. It was then that I realized that as much as we must dream big and set lofty goals of inspirations and impact, it all starts with the our own everyday, ordinary lives. So, after picking up those wrappers, I proceeded to clean the entire block, as well as the adjacent street, of all cigarette butts, popsicle sticks, broken glass, and any other such debris that dared defile my dreamy desert rose – Yerucham.When we got back to the magnificent apartment in which some of us guys are staying, I also began to clean out the front yard. After about an hour, the pile of trash had transformed into the ultimate hangout area, decked out with two remodeled couches, a dozen chairs and some hanging artwork. It was in this little area that all of us ushered in the cool evening with a delicious barbecue and a spontaneous bout of singing.
Sitting back on one of the couches, breathing in the fresh air of Israel, and listening to a bunch of beautiful voices singing songs of hope and prayer, my spirit was revived and I once again am looking forward to another day of making a difference in Yerucham.
Epilogue: It truly was a summer (or, more accurately, 2.5 weeks) of making a difference. More on those experiences another time... Also, in cleaning up that front porch, I found a old, dirty, broken Challah board which, with a little work, turned into a refined, beautiful (though still broken) Challah board. I brought it back to America with me and it has since graced the table of many a "Heart to Heart" Shabbat dinner, adding grandeur and regalia to our sanctified meals. Funny how these stories all connect...
Now for the story of that memorable Shabbat in Lexington, Kentucky. Leaving Dickinson at midnight and behind schedule, we had to make a difficult decision. Calculating the remaining hours of driving and the time before Shabbat, we figured out that we either had time for Keeneland or a good night's sleep, but not both. On the one hand, having a good night's sleep is crucial, so you're awake, on your game, and excited when interacting with people. But c'mon, Keeneland! Besides for this being the greatest (and only) horse races I could have gone to (leaving aside future prospects of returning to UKY), I felt that going to the races would've given us an 'in' with the students there; that could have been our common factor (other than being Jews) and a great conversation starter. But the 7 of us voted and I was outvoted, and against my will we stopped for a good night's sleep in a motel. (In retrospect, it turned out okay not going - but next year I am predicating joining the trip on agreeing to go to Keeneland.)
We got to our destination an hour before the time we planned to start and everyone ran off to do errands - get the food ready, sign up another driver, work out the hotel rooms, etc. We opened the cooler with all of the food to find some of the nastiest looking chicken ever - and that was the main food for the dinner. In another 'Shabbat miracle', someone ran to the grocery store and after much searching, they found one lone jar of barbecue sauce with the seal of the
kohen gadol OU on it. We drove to building where the event was planned, and quickly started getting things ready - saucing the chicken, making the salad, setting up the candles. In setting up the room for davening, we had decided that we would put up a mechitza - but use only a tablecloth-covered table between the men's and women's sections. As were were bringing over a table to put in the middle, one of the women who was organizing the event with us asked "Is that what I think it is?". Turns out she was a former Orthodox woman from Long Island, but when she moved out to the boondocks/got turned off by some conservative practices of Orthodox Judaism, she kind-of fell off the face of the religious-Jewish world. "Uh, well, we put this up because this is the way that we feel comfortable praying. Not elevating or demoting either gender, merely distinguishing the two and allowing for a space of more personal and comfortable prayer", we answered. Luckily, she actually liked the sound of that. By the time we started, people had been trickling in, mingling, and meeting - and by the time we started there was a big crowd of 14 Kentuckians + 7 Quakers = 21 people! And remember when people said we'd maybe get 5 people to stop by? This was incredible!
We saw/knew that we weren't getting a minyan and so we just started - first we let people know about candle lighting and one of the girls led a group of people in saying the blessings. Then we started davening - okay, so how do you run davening for people who might not know what davening is, and definitely not the one we're used to? We figured Carlebach + explanations was the way to go - if people don't know it, they can at least sing along, or at least get a sense of the feeling of kabbalat shabbat, the meaning, exhilaration, joy, etc. We gave out packets of transliterated and translated kabbalat shabbat, which we had prepared and began going through the sections, with people giving short explanations before different parts. The explanations were brief, just what was going on and some meaning that a specific prayer gave to them. And we sang a lot, slowly and loudly, going into "nay nay nays" after the words had finished. For 'lecha dodi', we did it to the tune of 'am yisrael chai', which I figured was our best shot at them knowing the song. And it was great- I saw/heard people following along; at one point during lecha dodi, I closed my ears, stopped singing, and heard a mass of people singing along behind me. It was really amazing - here we were in the middle of Kentucky with people who might never have had a Shabbat experience before, and definitely not one like this - singing songs of praise to God and greetings to the Shabbat.
After kabbalat Shabbat, we decided to cut straight to dinner - a smart move, as we would've lost these people during ma'ariv, and we would just do it on our own. So we sat down to eat - and what a Shabbat dinner it was! We explained a bit about the content as we went along (shalom aleichem, kiddush, hamotzi) and then we dug into the food. That chicken was probably the best chicken I'd ever had - maybe because I knew how it got there! The 7 of us split up and each person ended up engrossed in conversation with the two or three people around them. It was so nice getting to speak to these people, hearing their stories, what being Jewish was like in a place like Kentucky, what college life was like there, connections to Israel, what the cool things to do around town were, etc. These people had some crazy stories - like how their Christian friends yelled at them for being Jewish, one girl went on Birthright and now wants to live in Israel, one girl tried going to the reform Temple but never felt comfortable there. Dinner lasted for maybe two hours, and we tried a small discussion group on Jewish ethics, which some of the older people (Jewish faculty/community members who came) liked. But the kids (i.e. college students) really just wanted to hang out and talk. We had a feeling that would happen and didn't try and push it too much - it's hard to force too much content on people, especially when this already was their most Jewish experience in a long time. And especially college students, who might very well be more into partying/hanging out than serious religious discussions. But regardless of whether people sat down and read a text, I think it's fair to say that this was a worthwhile, content-filled Jewish experience for all. I mean, it was something, in a place that has nothing, and if it nothing more than to get there Jewish community together, it was worth it. The girl who previously didn't know any other Jewish students in Kentucky, left with a few new friends, one with whom she became pretty close with (I saw facebook pictures of them going shopping together for kosher for passover food). If just for that, I think it was all worth it - do you know what that means for someone stranded Jewishly in the middle of nowhere to be connected with other Jews her age? The new friend, who is slated to be the new 'Hillel president', also brought her along to the Hillel meeting (which consists of around 3 students)! Which also means that I singlehandedly added a quarter of their involved population! And there were more benefits - people said they loved the prayer services and really gained an appreciation for it in the brief taste; a few of the students said they wished they could have something like this more often, and if it was there, they'd for sure go every week. Fine, so there's no one to do this every week and they didn't feel comfortable/want to go to the local Temple, but at least this gave them a desire for more. Once again, we're back at the issue of follow-up - could there be a way to provide something more permanent and long-term for these people? Regardless, it as least planted seeds and either already has or at some point in the future will have had an impact on their lives.
I think this is long enough for now; part 4 to come...
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 ;)