OneTable helps Jews — queer and straight — celebrate Shabbat and find community

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Thursday September 29, 2022
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Jewish and ally attendees enjoy a meal at one of OneTable's queer Shabbat dinners hosted around the San Francisco Bay Area, "Queers, Jews, and Food" at Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. Photo: Heather Cassell
Jewish and ally attendees enjoy a meal at one of OneTable's queer Shabbat dinners hosted around the San Francisco Bay Area, "Queers, Jews, and Food" at Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. Photo: Heather Cassell

The sun was ready to set one Friday at Congregation Netivot Shalom and Rabbi Chai Levy led about 40 people in prayer inside the Berkeley synagogue. Outside, tables and chairs were set up on the lawn under trees strung with lights and rainbow flags. A buffet was being laid out in the adjacent meeting room for the night's Shabbat dinner.

It was the first time the group of queer Jews and allies came together in person for a Shabbat dinner since the beginning of the pandemic. It was also the first dinner the congregation hosted in conjunction with OneTable .

Shabbat is a day of Jewish celebration and rest based on the biblical story of when God finished creating the world. In the modern world, Shabbat has become a weekly ritual to pause, connect, reflect, rejuvenate, and celebrate with family and friends before the coming workweek. Every Friday at sunset Jews and other observers unplug for 25 hours until sundown on Saturday.

OneTable is a Jewish organization that helps young adults host Shabbat dinners. The dinners are created in hosts' visions of what the meal and vibe should be, from vegan to themed dinners to Pride to more traditional dinners every Friday across the United States, OneTable leaders told the Bay Area Reporter.

"I think that is really cool, that it is sort of like make your own. It doesn't need to be a traditional Shabbat dinner," said Nehama Rogozen, a queer Jewish woman who was co-organizer of "Netivot Shalom presents: Queers, Jews, and Food."

Rogozen once hosted a Filipino-themed dinner after living in the Philippines and has attended other themed Shabbat dinners that she found on OneTable, she said.

Maya Katz-Ali, the Bay Area field manager at OneTable, said that the organization's Shabbat dinners have a "restorative power of ritual" quality to them.

"Hosts all over the country have found this kind of restorative power of ritual — whether that's alternative ritual and creating it yourself or doing something that feels ancient and connected to your family and your roots," she said.

Why Shabbat

For decades, Jewish community leaders have asked, "How can they get younger generations to participate in Jewish life, faith, and organizations?"

The gateway to Jewish life — queer and straight — across the U.S. might be Shabbat dinners where young Jews consistently participate, researchers discovered.

Study after study across Jewish communities from New York to the Bay Area for decades showed young Jews were disconnected from Jewish life, community, and organizations. However, young Jews were connected to Jewish cultural events, volunteering, and Shabbat dinners.

The Bay Area was no different. Since 1986, when the Jewish Community Federation and the Endowment Fund, conducted its first community survey, Jewish community leaders noted the dissociation among young Jewish people.

The federation represents San Francisco and eight Bay Area counties.

The Bay Area is the fourth largest Jewish community in the U.S., according to the 2021 community survey, "A Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities."

Young Jews, 18-34 years of age, make up 25% of the Bay Area's Jewish population, according to the report pullout focused on Jewish young adults. It is unclear what percentage of the population identifies as LGBTQ.

In the 2021 survey, researchers found that LGBTQ Jewish respondents are more likely to be a person of color, "tend to skew younger in age," and, on average, they lived in the Bay Area "for less time than others." They were "less likely to be married, separated, divorced, or widowed," but "are more likely to be living with a partner or single and never married." LGBTQ Jews reported "fewer children in their homes."

Katz-Ali is part of what the Bay Area's LGBTQ Jewish community looks like today. A biracial 28-year-old queer woman, she originally found OneTable through the Facebook Group, Jews of Color of the Bay Area, and eventually started working with the organization. In 2021, she worked with New York's OneTable field manager Lilli Stordeur, an ally who is also biracial, to launch an initiative, "Refilling Our Cups," with a grant from Jews of Color Initiative. The initiative focuses on supporting Jews of color and people of color to host their own Shabbat dinners, Katz-Ali said.

"That's been really beautiful," she said, stating there have been more than 12 people of color — queer and allies — hosting Shabbat dinners throughout the Bay Area through the initiative. The grant amount and duration weren't disclosed by JoCI, according to the initiative's policy.

"This was the first time they felt like, 'I showed up as myself in this space to celebrate a meaningful Shabbat,' which is really cool," Katz-Ali said. She added that she finds if people are given the "tools to host their own Shabbat, they naturally want to hold one for the community that they feel close to."

The federation's 2021 report found no difference among young LGBTQ Jews from straight respondents in their "education, household income, and feeling economically vulnerable."

However, queer Jews were "more or equally likely to attend Jewish cultural events and volunteer for Jewish organizations than others;" Shabbat is one of those events.

Across the country, OneTable field managers, Shabbat dinner hosts, and participants spoke with the B.A.R. All were Jewish but said they didn't grow up practicing Judaism or it was practiced only at home for Shabbat and High Holy Days, such as Yom Kippur coming up October 4-5.

Many OneTable participants expressed that celebrating Shabbat dinners connected them to the Jewish community, with some exhibiting more interest in Jewish organizations and life.

Creating the bridge

That's what Aliza Kline, CEO of The Shabbat Project Inc., better known as OneTable, also uncovered eight years ago when she founded the $8.2 million organization, according to Eva Laporte, marketing and communications director at OneTable. Laporte did not state her age, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Seeing the disconnection among young Jews with their Jewishness and loneliness in a digitally connected world, Kline created OneTable to bring Jews, 21-39 years of age, in cities across America together to unplug and reconnect in real life at Shabbat dinners.

The result has been explosive. Laporte said in under a decade, OneTable has hosted 175,000 unique participants in 470 cities to date. The pandemic only increased the number of Shabbat dinners across the country. OneTable's website receives up to 70,000 visitors monthly.

OneTable provides the platform, resources — including a Shabbat Guide created by the Lesbian Bar Project — and supports some hosts by providing $10 per guest, up to $300, to create their Shabbat dinner. The organization is funded by individual donations, grants, and foundations, said Laporte.

The organization also works with more than 100 national organizations and more than 250 local partners throughout the year.

DIY Judaism

Using OneTable's platform, Jews and allies can either host or find a dinner to attend. Organizers said the dinners bring young Jews together with some affairs having up to 40 people. The average Shabbat dinner is about six people.

Back in Berkeley, Rogozen, a member of Netivot Shalom who's familiar with OneTable, saw an opportunity to bring queer Jews together for Shabbat at the synagogue.

She organized the Shabbat dinner at the congregation with two other people who did not want to be interviewed.

"Queer community feels really important to me," Rogozen said. "Judaism is also really important to me.

"This is a very, queer-affirming synagogue, but not in like an overt way," she continued, stating that queer Jews are members of the congregation, but programming for the community wasn't geared toward LGBTQ members. "I just wanted a place where we could all just be in the same room together."

Netivot Shalom's leadership hosted Shabbat dinners in the past, but it was for congregation members only, said the congregation's board president, Tamar Fendel.

"We were so enthusiastic about the ideas she was bringing to the table and the team was bringing to the table about radical inclusion or queering of the shul," said Fendel, 44, about Rogozen's idea to host a OneTable queer Shabbat dinner. Fendel declined to disclose her sexual orientation.

"They found a need and they built something beautiful as a result. That's exactly what our synagogue is about. I'm so grateful to them," she said about the lay member-led congregation.

The evening included Emily Winston, owner of Boichik Bagels, who told her story about becoming a bagel maker and building her Berkeley-based bagel shop. (Coincidentally, the shop is in the same location as the original Noah's Bagels.)

Winston donated bagels, lox, and schmears to the evening's dinner.

"I've never been in a queer Jewish intersectional space before," Winston, a 44-year-old lesbian, said, happy that she was invited to the dinner. "Everyone's really hungry for community, period, after the last few years."

Fendel told the B.A.R. she hopes there will be more LGBTQ events and Shabbat dinners welcoming new people to the synagogue.

The Shabbat dinner at Netivot Shalom was one of about 25 to 35 dinners hosted with an average of six attendees at each meal weekly around the San Francisco Bay Area, said Katz-Ali. In the first half of this year, there were an estimated 12 dinners listed on OneTable specifically naming "queer, LGTBQA+, or gay or lesbian in the title itself," she added.

One of the Bay Area's larger Shabbat dinners is hosted by Nice Jewish Boys Plus in San Francisco. The volunteer-led group provides a community around Jewish culture and values for gay, bisexual, transgender men, and nonbinary people. The group hosts monthly Shabbat dinners attended by 25 to 40 people at various locations, such as Congregation Sha'ar Zahav, San Francisco's LGBTQ synagogue, and Manny's, a gay-owned community space in the Mission, with OneTable's support, said Fima Zaltsman, who is on the group's "mensch committee" that plans events.

The group "was really kind of how I started incorporating Shabbat into my life because it wasn't really something I did growing up," said the 32-year-old gay man who joined the group to find community when he moved to San Francisco four years ago.

Joanna Massey, a 48-year-old queer transgender woman, who attended Netivot Shalom's dinner, thought it was "wonderful."

"I think queer people are kind, welcoming, and fun — that's just the way it is," she said.

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