For my first Friday night at college, I decided to attend Shabbat dinner. I had never seen a dining room so packed. During the meal, I made a joking reference to my family’s high holiday celebrations and a boy at my table turned to me in shock. “You’re Jewish?” he asked.
I was taken aback. “Are you?” I asked. And he responded that he was not—but Shabbat dinners at the Joseph Slivka Center, Yale’s Hillel, were one of the highlights of his college weeks.
Shabbat dinners at Slivka are a campus institution. They are a veritable melting pot– of Jews and Christians, Asians and Indians, and, most importantly, matzah ball soup. Famous for their delicious chicken and warm atmosphere, the dinners draw hundreds of students of every background. Students who hadn’t thought about their Jewish identity since their bar mitzvahs snigger at their parents’ reactions when they call home to report they are attending Shabbat dinner.
These melting pot dinners are at the center of the Slivka Center’s identity on campus. As a spiritual community, it is known for being welcoming and social, a space where students of all backgrounds can engage Jewish rituals.
The Slivka Center shapes students’ experiences far beyond the events it holds. It is a means of defining Jewish identity on campus. Its presence plays a critical role in destroying the myth of the Jewish community as an exclusive, esoteric “chosen people.” Because all students regardless of their religious background see the Slivka Center as a space that is warm and exciting, they perceive the Jewish community as a critical part of campus. And students who previously felt no connection to their ethnic roots are suddenly proud to introduce themselves as members of the tribe. At college, Judaism means delicious challah and soup, Friday night dinners that feel like the place to be on campus. Of course it can mean so much more for students who choose to engage the many spiritual opportunities offered—but at the very least it means warmth and fun.
It is easy to underestimate the role that synagogues play in defining Jewish identity. Jewish leaders labor to create communities that will offer meaningful prayer services, fun holiday celebrations, and more. But the tone of these communities also impacts non-Jews’ perception of the Jewish community. And in this vein, it impacts Jews’ self-image and pride in their identities. Spiritual communities are just as much statement as physical space. They are a means of broadcasting Jewish values to the public. The choice Slivka’s leadership has made in permitting students to attend Shabbat dinner regardless of their religious background is a means of introducing non-Jews to a core Jewish principle: there’s always room to draw up another chair at the table. “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
This October, the Slivka community will gather one Saturday morning to read Parshat Breishit. The famous story of humanity’s creation, our bodies fashioned in the image of God. Being shaped as reflections of God is a daunting thought—how can we mirror a being that has so many contradicting attributes? When I look around during Shabbat at Slivka, this concept makes sense to me. At the dinner table there are loud students and soft-spoken ones, black and white, painters and lacrosse players. Our Shabbat table reflects diverse attributes. We are a people that embrace multitudes. And that’s a religion I’m proud to be a part of.email print