As Shabbat inches closer each week, my kids usually don't ask what I'm making for dinner. Instead, they ask, "Who's coming for dinner?" This is because they realize that even if I were to serve something as exotic as Thai or Moroccan food (unlikely), it's our guests who really spice up our Shabbat and holiday tables. It's kind of like diner's roulette: Often, we meet our guests for the very first time when they walk through our front door for the meal.
As part of an Aish HaTorah community that emphasizes kiruv (outreach to unaffiliated Jews), we enjoy hosting guests who are new to Judaism. These are folks who may have attended another Aish HaTorah class or singles event and expressed interest in coming to shul or to a meal with a Shabbat-observant family. When more secular Jews are willing to open the door to tradition, we who are already observant swing our own doors open wide to let them in.
Here's a typical recent Shabbat: On Friday night, my husband and kids returned from shul with a small army of eight guests, five of whom were total strangers to us. They had been placed with us by an Aish HaTorah teacher who spends countless hours each week matching up host families with guests who have expressed a desire to explore traditional Judaism. In this sense, the meals we host are only the appetizer; the main course, if selected from the menu, is a life of deeper spiritual meaning through Jewish observance.
Mikhail Ekshtut, a single 32-year-old civil engineer in Seattle, attended his first traditional Shabbat dinner more than four years ago. Since then, when traveling in his position as a chaplain assistant in the Air Force Reserve, or in trying to meet like-minded, single Jewish women in other cities, he has shared Shabbat meals with families in Birmingham, Atlanta, New York and Israel.
"Even if you're a half a world away, it feels like home," Ekshtut said of these experiences. "Shabbat brings to focus what Judaism is all about and is a turning point for a lot of Jews, including my sister and me. This is what I want for my future family."
Living in the very diverse city of Los Angeles, our guests often reflect the Diaspora. Over the years, we have hosted Jews from Morocco, Mexico, Bosnia, Ukraine, Egypt, Rhodes, England, France, Australia, South Africa, Costa Rica, Gibraltar, Iran, Syria, and other lands too numerous to mention. We are always stimulated to learn about Jewish life in these other lands, and have also heard dramatic stories of escape from Iran, Yemen and other countries where Jews have been oppressed.
If things go well, these "strangers" at our table won't remain strangers for long. Over the nearly 16 years that we have been hosting meals, my husband and I have been gratified to watch newcomers slowly grow in their Jewish observance. Friendships have blossomed. Some of our dinner or lunch guests become sleepover guests when they no longer feel comfortable driving to shul. Most gratifying is when these singles marry and begin families of their own. Then they proudly become the hosts for a new generation of "underaffiliated" Jews.
Because the epidemic of singleness in the Jewish community is so acute, we try to angle our Shabbat hospitality toward this group. Of course, predicting chemistry between the sexes is a fine art. But over a relaxed Shabbat dinner with a small crowd, men and women can subtly get a sense of one another without the awkwardness or pressure of a typical singles event. A Shabbat table is not a surefire way to meet a husband or wife, but it's a great place to start. Often, guests who feel the special warmth and spiritual nourishment of a Shabbat experience will take small steps toward spiritual growth, such as taking classes, learning about Jewish prayer and going to Israel to study. Eventually, if they are still single and still committed to a traditional Jewish lifestyle, they may engage a shadchan (matchmaker) to help them find their besheret (soulmate).
I admit that sometimes, while chopping vegetables for a salad or standing in the market for another few items I had forgotten to purchase earlier, I ask myself, "Why am I doing this again?" After all, each meal entails careful menu planning, shopping, cooking, serving and cleaning up. It's a lot of work. But those moments of doubt are fleeting.
Not long ago, I received in the mail two lovely thank-you notes and a beautiful hand-made afghan -- each an expression of gratitude from individual guests whom we had hosted for a Shabbat meal. We are always touched to realize how much one Shabbat experience can mean to Jews who feel adrift in secular society and have discovered a taste of what they are looking for in our own home.
And to think that we can offer this potential to our less-affiliated Jewish brothers and sisters, all for the price of a few chickens! I don't think there's a better bargain around.
Judy Gruen's most recent book is "Till We Eat Again: Confessions of a Diet Dropout" (Champion Press, 2003). She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and four children, and recently hosted 14 guests for a Friday night dinner.