February 15, 2007
So many singles, so few tables
This is not a sob story. There is no hunger or homelessness, there are no kids with cancer.
Rather, it's the story of single Jews in Los Angeles who, once in a while, would love to gather around a family Shabbat table. They're not desperate for company. Many don't have family here, and they just like the idea of staying connected to their Judaism and their people through the joy of a Shabbat table.
The problem is, there aren't that many tables available, and the community could surely use a few more.
Remember the movie "Crash" that won the Oscar for Best Picture last year? On the surface, all you could see were the sharp differences among the many peoples of L.A., and how those differences divided us. But dig a little and you could see a more unifying message: When it comes to the pain of feeling isolated, we are all the same. Chinese, Persian, Latino, Black or Caucasian, deep down, what unites us all is our human need to stay connected -- to not be alone.
Jews are no different. Whether male or female, young or old, Ashkenazic or Sephardic, rich or poor, left-wing or right-wing, religious or secular, SUV-driving or Prius-driving, loud or quiet, screenwriter or grant writer, somehow, no matter how good you feel in our own skin, and how much you enjoy your own company, none of us wants to be alone.
This need to stay connected seems only to deepen if you're a single Jew living in the City of Angels ... and it's Friday night.
You don't have your own family, you live in a city not known for its communal hugs, and you're part of a people that has been kicked around for 3,000 years -- all of which makes you naturally open to some communal hugging.
And then there's Friday night. After a week of doing whatever it is we all do, it's not unusual to ask ourselves: What am I doing all this for? At that tender moment -- when we seek to savor the fruits of our labors -- there's nothing quite like schmoozing with other Jews around the cozy warmth of a Shabbat table, especially if there's a good bottle of red.
In his 2005 book "Around the Family Table," Rabbi Shlomo Riskin explains how the Shabbat meal "links the generations, making everyone feel part of the eternal people participating in an eternal conversation with the Divine."
He goes on to say that "over the last 40 years, thousands of individuals have shared these meals with our family, and have likewise discovered meaning and inspiration through their participation. Indeed I am convinced that this family ritual is a far more authentic and significant expression of Judaism than is any synagogue service."
Imagine, then, if sharing this ritual became part of the Jewish consciousness. Imagine, for example, if every Friday night millions of single Jews across America would gather and connect with other Jewish families over a beautiful Shabbat meal.
It'd be like a weekly invitation to stay Jewish.
In fact, if the Jewish federations were smart, and if they were really serious about "Jewish continuity," they would get together and create a national "Shabbat Birthright" movement and work with local communities everywhere to encourage Jewish families to connect with Jewish singles on Shabbat. Unlike one-day programs like "Shabbat Across America" that happen in outside locations, this would promote an ongoing ritual that is celebrated in Jewish homes.
They might start by coming down here to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, where an enterprising single Jew has started what you might call her own little Shabbat birthright movement.
Don't get me wrong. This is not a buttoned-up organization with a catchy name and a cool Web site. It doesn't even have a name. It's simply the brainchild of a 30-something woman named Lori Pietruszka, who's got this mini-obsession with tracking down Jewish singles and matching them up with Shabbat tables in the neighborhood.
Since she started this in January with the help of friends, Lori has arranged Shabbat tables for about 90 single Jews in 11 different homes. The list of singles with references now tops 200, and she says she's getting calls and e-mails every day from singles looking to join up (firstname.lastname@example.org). She already has Shabbat bookings through June.
Lori is one of those "Mary Poppins" kind of people, who doesn't know from sarcasm and who uses phrases like "incredibly awesome." There is one thing, however, that she doesn't find incredibly awesome: how hard it is to find tables.
She's doesn't like to complain, but it pains her that married people with kids can forget how great it felt to be invited to a beautiful Shabbat meal when they themselves were single. That makes her exceedingly grateful to the families that have opened their hearts and their homes to her.
She knows that there have always been tables around the hood that regularly host singles, but she'd love to see more families embrace this mitzvah that dates from the time of Abraham. She believes that opening your door to guests is not just a way to connect with new and interesting people of your own faith, it's also a blessing.
Eventually, she hopes that the many synagogues of the area will take over this blessing and encourage their members to participate. Since a lot of singles don't go to synagogue, the synagogues will have to find them. That's where people like Lori will help.
When I ask if her hidden agenda is to help singles meet their soulmates, she replies that it's all part of the same picture. She thinks a Shabbat table is a holier, more elegant place to meet a possible shidduch than, say, a "singles event" or a pressure-filled first date.
Maybe she's right. If you don't meet that special someone at a Shabbat meal, you can always say you felt part of the eternal people participating in an eternal conversation with the Divine.
Or better yet, that you met a few good Jews and had some really good laughs.