Opinion | Dinner at the Park: From Strangers to Neighbors

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friends share a meal
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By Harris Sokoloff

Whether one praises or condemns the United States’ immigration policies, once immigrants arrive in our communities we need to attend to two Jewish values: one is “Love the stranger as yourself” (“v’ahavta et hager kamocha”) and the other is “repair the world” (“tikkun olam”).

Such values are not always easy to put into practice, but I have seen firsthand how it can be done.

For the last three years, Catalyst Community Conversations at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education has worked with partner organizations to bring those values to life in challenging times — just by having dinner.

The community-focused program “Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers” brings diverse residents from communities across Philadelphia together for a meal at a local public park (Bartram’s Garden, FDR Park, Norris Square, Vernon Park and a fifth to be decided soon). Residents who go to the dinners are not only unfamiliar with each other, but may have even have had misunderstandings or been at odds with other participating cultural groups.

Menus are designed by chef Tess Connors to draw from ethnic foods of attendees. Table moderators ease everyone into conversation by focusing on childhood memories of family meals, asking questions about important foods in different homes and cultures and opening the door to more pragmatic topics. Toward the end of the two-hour event, moderators shift the conversation to the park they share as a community, asking how it might be used more and how they, as individuals, can get involved with the group that maintains their neighborhood park.

During the process, participants overcome perceived barriers and discover they share more than previously believed, from familiar foods to ingredients and preparations. Remarks like “I didn’t realize there were so many similarities between the foods we eat every day and what folks from other cultures eat” are commonly heard. Many attendees express a willingness to try new dishes or cooking techniques and exchange recipes.

As stories are shared about special foods related to ethnic and religious ceremonies, something foreign becomes familiar and a stranger becomes a neighbor. One repeated refrain at the end of the night is, “If you are curious enough, difference can bring us together.”

On more than one occasion, participants have started to lay the groundwork for a potluck community picnic where people could bring ethnic foods to share and even involve local businesses. Other participants have discussed the way that community activity positively impacts the parks: Residents living around Norris Square talked about the power of kids playing, the influence of an open mic night and how the other community festivals make the park safer year-round.

There is a second dinner in each park, with participants from the first dinner contributing ideas for the menu. Between the first and second dinners, attendees learn how to facilitate conversations so they can co-facilitate the second round. Eventually, these same participants will be equipped to design and facilitate a third potluck-style dinner with their neighbors.

As the evening progresses, participants begin to develop relationships. Sparks of friendships are ignited and community ties are forged. People who, at the start of the event, had been hesitant to sit at a table with strangers are now so glad that they gave it a chance.

And it all begins with dinner.

Harris Sokoloff is a professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. He serves as the director of the Center for School Study Councils and Catalyst Community Conversations. Sokoloff is a past board member and longtime congregant of Beth Am Israel Congregation, Penn Valley.

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