Soon after the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha shooting, Lyssia Katan and a dozen of her friends gathered around a Shabbat dinner of challah, stuffed grape leaves and chicken to honor the 11 victims.
Katan organized the dinner with support from the Jewish Graduate Student Network’s Shabbat Across Philly Initiative, which helped her cover the costs.
Inspired by similar programs aimed at undergraduate students at Hillels across the country, the Shabbat Across Philly Initiative provides support for graduate students and young professionals interested in hosting their own Shabbat dinners. This support can include answering questions about how to do certain blessings, connecting participants to resources in the community and reimbursing food and plasticware costs for $7 per person for up to 10 people.
“It’s very difficult to come together for a Shabbat dinner,” said Katan, a Drexel University alum and a young professional working in construction materials. “Many people are far from their families. On campus at least, I know several of my friends were in AEPi. We would always go to Chabad or Hillel for Shabbat, but since we don’t really have that so much and everybody’s spread out, it was really nice to have everybody back together for a Shabbat and just hang out and reminisce on how it was.”
The initiative had a “soft launch” around the High Holidays, said Tslil Shtulsaft, executive director of Hillels in Philadelphia and the Graduate Student Network.
“We are supporting and empowering all of these graduate students and young professionals that perhaps have never taken a leadership role in their lives in an organization,” Shtulsaft said. “And now, they are responsible for hosting a Shabbat Jewish experience.”
When the initiative first launched, a handful of people participated. After the shooting, interest surged as young adults like Katan were inspired to put on Shabbat dinners of their own.
“We were hearing over and over that people wanted to do something,” Shtulsaft said. “They just weren’t sure what to do. Some of them went to synagogue the following Saturday. Some of them maybe participated in Shabbat dinners if they knew of any.”
The Grad Network sent out information about the initiative through email and social media, and dozens of people in the community decided to participate.
Since then, the number of participants has tapered, but Program Director Mallory Kovit said that as the new semester starts there’s been an increase in interest.
“We’re not able to engage all grad students every Friday night and certainly they’re not able to come every Friday night to an event that we would hold,” Kovit said. “We want more people to experience Shabbat in their homes and feel that community.”
To participate, graduate students or young professionals should fill out an online questionnaire, available on the organization’s website.
The Grad Network asks hosts to send a list of the attendees’ names and email addresses so they can track who is coming to the events. These people do not, Kovit said, get added to an email blast list.
The Grad Network also asks participants to take a photo of their Shabbat and share it on social media with the hashtag #ShabbatAcrossPhilly. If participants are shomer Shabbat, they can take a photo of Shabbat preparation, Kovit said.
“Shabbat is not as hard as it might seem,” Kovit said. “There is preparation needed, but it can really be something that if you decide on a Monday or Tuesday that you’re going to have Shabbat dinner, if you’re going to invite your friends to your house for anything, any dinner, why not have it be Shabbat?”
The Grad Network has wanted to launch a program like this for some time to reach more people, Shtulsaft said. He estimates that between 80 and 85 percent of those who’ve attended Shabbat Across Philly dinners have not previously been involved in the Grad Network.
In June, an anonymous donor made the initiative possible by providing a gift covering the full expenses of the initiative for a year.
“We’re in this era of people not necessarily connecting with traditional Judaism,” Shtulsaft said, “so we want to provide an opportunity for them to experience Judaism on their own terms.”
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