chronicles of shabbat

hillel and heritage

My family is Jewish, but I’ve never really understood what that means. Before Brown, I could count the number of times I had been to a synagogue on one hand. I wasn’t bat mitzvahed; I knew only a handful of Hebrew and Yiddish words. At home, we insist Christmas is just like any other day. We light Hanukkah candles and eat matzah on Passover, but I was never sure if I was as Jewish as, say, my friends who complained about going to Hebrew school and missed classes for high holidays.

So when I went to college, I didn’t give much thought to participating in any kind of religious life at Brown. At the same time, I was also struggling to make friends, and as I always do, I turned to my big sister Stephanie for advice. She told me that she sometimes went to “Shabbat dinners” at her college, whatever those were, so I did some investigating to see if Brown had them, too.

Shabbat is the Jewish Sabbath, and it is observed from sunset on Friday until an hour after sundown on Saturday. During Shabbat, there are no electronics at all—laptops, lights, driving, and writing are all off-limits. No work. It’s a day of rest.

I grappled with my simultaneous Jewish identity and complete void of both religious and cultural knowledge. I wondered, would I become a fraud if I walked through the doors of a Jewish institution after 19 years of neglecting others just like it? But I was more embarrassed about my inability to make friends than my lack of religious knowledge, so I turned up at Brown RISD Hillel, the center for Jewish life on campus, for a Shabbat dinner my freshman fall.

Shabbat at Hillel is a pretty amazing affair. It happens every week, and it’s entirely student-run except for the Saturday morning services that are run in collaboration with one of Hillel’s rabbis. At 6 p.m. on Friday, when Shabbat begins, there are religious services. There is always a reform group and a Havurah group (a service that keeps mostly in line with conservative liturgy). Sometimes when a need or desire arises, there is an orthodox service. Hillel makes an effort to rotate which students lead services to keep things interesting and to make sure everyone feels engaged.

Then, at 7:15 p.m., individuals from all denominations come together for announcements and Kiddush, the blessing over the wine (it’s grape juice, except during Family Weekend, when it is actually wine). I usually stand there awkwardly while people sing the prayers because even though I know what they sound like now, I’m not confident enough to join in. Sometimes I pretend to sing or hum along really quietly because it makes me feel less fraudulent. “Recycle your cups!” Hillel e-board members announce as people migrate from grape-juice-blessing to the hall where dinner is served.

Each table sits roughly 10 people. I like watching people enter in groups of two or three and jockey for seats at tables with people that they already know. Though I go to Shabbat a lot now and tend to recognize a lot of people, there have also been times when I barely knew anyone at all. Even on days when I feel most like a stranger, I do not feel like an outsider. Whatever has brought people to Shabbat dinner—a friend, an interest in religious services, or the dinner itself—I know that we all have something in common.

Once everyone is settled, each group blesses the bread (it’s called saying Hamotzi) and passes it around. If it’s a table full of students who already know each other, they dive into gossip and start catching up straight away. If it’s a group of strangers, or mostly strangers, they exchange names, play icebreakers, and ask benign questions about concentrations and hometowns. Sometimes, I just listen. Other times, I feel totally overwhelmed. Interacting with 10 people at a table can feel daunting, and I don’t know how to navigate the social dynamics—there are conversations on either side of me, and I’m drifting between them, between being left out of both or intensely involved with one or the other. I don’t mind either way.

The food is always delicious and kosher, and there are also vegetarian and vegan options, dessert, and fruit: big salads, potatoes, chicken, rice, eggplant, chocolate mousse, melon slices, grapes. Though I went freshman year to break the monotony (and insecurity) of always eating at the dining hall, now that I live in an apartment, I see these dinners in part as a way to take a break from my usual routines by enjoying delicious, diverse foods with a community that is lively and welcoming.

Lots of Shabbat dinners have themes like interfaith or Jews of mixed identities or faculty, and oftentimes there’s a guest speaker. Occasionally, a couple of students share prewritten thoughts on the theme, or one of Hillel’s rabbis will relate it to current events. Especially because the news is often volatile and upsetting, I find it comforting to listen to someone talk about a text that has been read by countless people over thousands of years. Moreover, Jewish scholars and rabbis and regular people still have new readings of the Torah to offer, and it helps them to understand our modern world.

There is a closing prayer, and then an oneg at someone’s house or dorm. An oneg is a party with no music or lights (because there is no electricity on Shabbat) to celebrate the day of rest. The Jewish seniors’ Facebook Messenger group chat is often used by upperclassmen trying to get each other to host the week’s oneg. I don’t think I’ve ever messaged in the group, but I am happy to be included: I like watching conversations play out.

Saturday morning, there’s a service, followed by lunch. Lunch is free, and even people who don’t come to services can come to lunch. In the words of one Hillel e-board member, “In terms of pluralism, we don’t just talk the talk. We are working to actively engage students in the way that they want to be engaged. It makes me happy that students can just show up to whatever it is that they want and not feel the pressure to do anything more or less or different.” It’s true. I always skip the religious stuff, and I mostly don’t feel guilty about it.

Hillel often has a Saturday afternoon activity, like singing, text study, or a board game tournament for people who are serious about following Shabbat’s many rules. I’ve been told by Shabbat-keepers that the Saturday activities, apart from being contemplative and restful, make the day fun and social for those who have been separated from their cell phones and laptops.

Saturday evening, there’s a Havdallah service to close Shabbat. One Shabbat regular described this service as being one of her favorites. There’s a ritual involving a braided candle, the service is lyrical, and there’s a blessing on sweet-smelling spices. It is a ritual all about separating the holy from the everyday. Then, Shabbat is over, and the participants go back to their daily lives.

Upon further reflection, I feel it’s surprising that Shabbat specifically and Judaism more broadly have become such central tenets of my life at Brown. I showed up at Hillel in part because I wanted to build a community, but also because Friday nights in college are ridden with expectations about going out, having dinner plans, or ending up with legendary stories to bring home for winter break. Freshman fall, I dreaded facing the big chunk of time between the end of my Friday classes and going to bed 12 hours later. Early on, I was not invited to parties. I didn’t have friends to hang out with. I definitely did not want to do my work. These feelings of loneliness and embarrassment were amplified by the fact that I didn’t know they were, in fact, rather ubiquitous.

But even though I don’t worry about having plans on Friday nights anymore, I still go to Shabbat most weeks. Growing up, I didn’t really think of my being Jewish as something to be celebrated. In fact, I didn’t really think of my being Jewish at all. Going to Hillel for cultural and social activities that I enjoy and not for the religious elements that I don’t has helped me feel like this religious and cultural community, at least at Brown, has things to offer me and not things to demand from me.

I’ve never known that much about Judaism, but I’d like to learn more. Attending Shabbat many weeks over four years has made me feel like it isn’t too late for me to learn about this culture. It isn’t too late for me to hum prayers I don’t really know. Hillel has been one means of forming a community that is supportive, diverse, and invested in inclusivity. For this reason, I’m happy Stephanie started going to Shabbat, and I’m glad I followed suit.