Shabbat doesn’t always look like a quiet dinner with candle lighting and prayers over wine and bread. Sometimes, it looks like a Free Britney dance party to raise awareness of pop star Britney Spears’ conservatorship; other times, it looks like mural painting in West Philadelphia.
These unconventional evenings aren’t just pipe dreams of young Jews; they’re events that have materialized as a way for a generation who have shied away from becoming synagogue members to live Jewishly. They’re also ideas that OneTable Philadelphia Field Manager Emma Chasen has helped support through the organization, which provides funding to young Jews looking to foster community through Shabbat dinners.
Chasen, 30, has even hosted an esoteric Shabbat in her Manayunk home through OneTable, gathering Mason jars and essential oils and encouraging guests to create fragrant potions to bring home with them.
“You can explore your Judaism; you can contemplate on different kinds of philosophical — or even more mundane — questions that are coming up in your life over community over a dinner table,” Chasen said. “You can incorporate rituals that have been used historically, and/or you can make up your own ones that feel really meaningful to you.”
In December, Chasen will leave OneTable in pursuit of her graduate studies at Jefferson University, where she is receiving her master’s degree in medical cannabis science and business. But having moved to Philly with her fiancee only a year ago, she said she wouldn’t have been able to find her bearings in the new city so easily without OneTable.
“That expansiveness allowed me to be able to show up in a way that still felt really authentic to me, and it was such a beautiful feeling of belonging that I had not felt at any kind of institutionalized Jewish space,” she said.
Chasen grew up in a secular Jewish household in Long Island, New York, where she celebrated the major Jewish holidays, but did not receive a formal Jewish education or become bat mitzvah in a synagogue.
“I always felt like I was kind of being an imposter,” Chasen said of her Judaism.
Her relationship with Judaism began to change when she read a book about divine feminine mystique traditions, which contained a chapter about Shabbat. She absorbed the book while on an eight-day cruise without internet or cellphone service, a prolonged “tech Shabbat,” she called it.
After the cruise, Chasen approached another secular Jewish friend about starting a Shabbat practice. Her friend pointed her in the direction of OneTable.
When Chasen joined OneTable in October 2021, the organization was just starting to flourish in Philadelphia, gaining enough traction, as well as a grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, to create and fill the role of a field manager in the city after five or so years of building interest.
Having moved to the city on Oct. 1, the job became an opportunity for Chasen to learn Philadelphia’s community, something she has been in pursuit of in every city she’s called home.
After graduating from Brown University with a bachelor’s degree in medicinal plant research and ethnobotany, Chasen moved to Portland, Oregon, with an interest in attending naturopathic school, right before the state’s adult-use marijuana sales.
She worked at a dispensary and “loved talking to people” and using her undergraduate degree to help patrons and patients navigate medical marijuana. Chasen became general manager and later director of education for the business before leaving to become a consultant and to work to open a handful of dispensaries in Portland.
The opportunity at OneTable allowed Chasen to relocate and live in a more affordable city to continue her education, but leaving her Portland community behind was painful for her. Looking for an outlet for her creative energy and quest for homemaking, Chasen transformed her Manayunk row home into the Philly Fun House, painting the walls with bright, flowing patterns and decorating the space with an amalgamation of textured furniture and decor. She and her fiancee rent the space out for photo shoots and feature it on TikTok.
“It’s part of a scar, if you will, of a time when I felt really depressed and alone, but to see what I could create out of that — the beauty and the lightness and the color — I feel really proud,” she said.
Just as Chasen has created a personalized version of her home, she believes she’s done the same with her time at OneTable, guiding the organization with her flair and goals for community-building. She hopes her successor will do the same.
“The way that I’ve grown the hub and managed the field and the community might be completely different from the next person who comes in,” Chasen said. “But I think that’s a really cool aspect of it because then it can grow in so many different, equally wonderful ways.”