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7 on Seven: Three Thousand Shabbos Guests

As told to Leah Gebber

More than the Jews have kept Shabbos, Shabbos has kept the Jews. The seventh day of the week is our island and oasis, an iron-strong bond to our Creator. One woman wasn’t satisfied with sanctifying Shabbos on her own; she wanted to share the treasure with anyone who thirsted for it. Her initiative led to a Guinness World Record for the largest Shabbos meal ever recorded — illuminating thousands of hearts with its light.

Monday, October 06, 2014

I had just moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, and the contrast was stark. It wasn’t just that Jerusalem’s hilltop breeze carries the scent of stones and olives, while Tel Aviv smells of the briny ocean. It wasn’t just the difference between the peachy stone of Jerusalem and the towering, blue-tinted glass skyscrapers of Tel Aviv. It was Shabbat. One week, come Friday afternoon, I still didn’t have an invite for that night’s Shabbat seudah. That had never happened in Yerushalayim. There, if worst comes to worst and you’re not sorted out, you go to shul and have a million different invitations right there. But Tel Aviv’s not like that. In the end, on Friday afternoon, I was set up with a family. It was a really uncomfortable experience — I suppose that they were marking Shabbat the way that they knew how, but when I went into the kitchen to help serve, I saw the fridge light go on as my hostess swung open the door. There were no divrei Torah, no zemirot. I pushed my food around on my plate, as I couldn’t be sure of the kashrus standards. Which got me thinking: How many people were like me — in the position to need a Shabbat meal and not have one? And how many people wanted an authentic Shabbat experience and simply did not have access to it? I can’t say all my Shabbat memories are rosy: I mean, which teen really wants to be dragged out of bed Shabbat morning — in the sevens, no less — to go to shul? And I wouldn’t say that my hometown was a fount of inspiring experiences. Still, my mother’s love for Shabbat was so clear, and my father’s and brothers’ zemirot and divrei Torah ensured our Shabbat table was meaningful and, if not always that tuneful, definitely rhythmic. Back to Tel Aviv. That Shabbat meal left me disappointed, but more than that — determined that whoever else was in a similar position shouldn’t go without. After all, in a place like Tel Aviv, where Shabbat is what you make of it, it would be far too easy for people who are less committed to simply take their Friday night repast in a bar or café. And I didn’t want that to happen. I found out about an organization, White City Shabbat, which basically made shidduchim between guests and hosts. Great. But it had petered out, wasn’t really functioning much. I contacted the director, and suggested running monthly Shabbat meals. He was enthusiastic, so we then contacted the shul on Rechov Ben Yehuda and asked them if we could use their premises. They were happy to help — after all, they were interested in rejuvenating Jewish life in Tel Aviv. I called a caterer, got people to sign up, and two weeks later was cohosting our first Shabbat meal. We had around 35 people. Sweet success! There was a great atmosphere, and we decided that this would work. Well, before long we outgrew the 135-seat premises and moved to the Goren Shul where we now host over 200 people each month and another 100 or so who are put on a waiting list (many of whom come after the meal for dessert and singing). I’m not a natural organizer — far from it — and I think that I would never have gotten this off the ground in Yerushalayim. While in the Holy City there’s a sacred feeling of heritage and tradition, Tel Aviv’s atmosphere is one of entrepreneurship — that is to say, let’s just wing it. So I winged it. Made plenty of mistakes along the way — we charge 70 shekels per person, and there were times I had to dip into my own pocket to make up a shortfall, and there were times when I had to refund whole tables because I had ordered too few portions. There was the time when the electricity was off, and we were stuck in a dark, stifling hall with cold chicken. There were hiccups, lots of them, but there was also energy and that’s what carried us along. Each Shabbat meal has its own atmosphere, and I’m careful not to package this as a spiritual experience or a kiruv-style meal. After all, there’s Aish and there’s Chabad, but many people don’t feel comfortable in an atmosphere that whiffs of an agenda. And all those people — an entire nation of people — have been given the gift of Shabbat and are unaware of the treasure that’s right there before them. I just wanted to help people feel this gift. Because it belongs to all of us, the whole nation, no matter who they are and what they believe.

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