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Pop-Up Shabbat: A Dinner Community Case Study

From the Editor
This article features interactive content. To see additional commentary hover your mouse over the maroon hyperlinks. Additional orange hyperlinks in the commentary will take to you additional resources here on the site. Enjoy! — TKS

Pop-Up Shabbat  is a pop-up restaurant inspired by Jewish culture and tradition in Brooklyn, NY. Each gathering lasts 3-4 hours and includes “slightly socially engineered mingling, family-style dining, music (yes, sometimes dancing), and a bit of Shabbat tradition.” Numbers are capped at around 40 to maintain a homey vibe, and partnerships with local institutions such as Brooklyn Brewery and Fleischman’s butchery assure a delicious menu.

Different nights feature different themes – from the traditionally Jewish Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), to the traditionally Millennial 90’s hip hop. Non-Jews are welcome, in fact two of the co-founding team are goys! Tickets are purchased in advance, ensuring financial sustainability and providing an added incentive to maintain the commitment of coming..

Founder Danya Cheskis-Gold has grown away from her Orthodox Jewish upbringing, but was looking to maintain a relationship with her tradition. She explains, “I joined the board of a Jewish non-profit and I tried out hippie synagogues in Park Slope and matchmaking ones on the Upper West Side. But I loved my potluck Shabbat dinners the most. Friends, food, fun.” Though Pop-Up Shabbat is clearly Jewish, it doesn’t draw a boundary on participation or belonging. Cheskis-Gold was so focused on openness that she was surprised by the desire of guests to connect to tradition. On the first gathering, she had simply planned delicious food on a Friday night with some conversation about rest and renewal, a broad Shabbat theme. Instead, she says, “half-way through the dinner, someone asked when we were going to bless the candles and the wine and everyone joined in to demand a blessing! I hadn’t expected that at all, but it’s now a staple of every meal.”

Finding a model for dinner congregations to become financially sustainable is a consistent challenge. Some like St Lydia’s, also in Brooklyn, have developed a co-working space alongside the dinner church. Cheskis-Gold and her team have a different solution, building on the Silicon Valley business model of developing three ‘C’s: an engaged Community, high quality Content and Commercial products. Alongside Pop-Up Shabbat, which builds community, she’s launched a community newsletter The Ish, a bi-weekly Jew-ish digest of things to do, eat, read, give or get, and people to meet. This provides the quality content. She’s now working on a commercial offer to complete her strategy.

Pop-Up Shabbat’s financial model is one of the reasons it stands out among the growing number of religious communities gathering around a meal. It doesn’t expect the dinner gathering itself to fully sustain the organization and is actively exploring commercial opportunities. It also charges guests for the meal in a traditional ticketing format, rather than relying on donations. This aligns it more closely with the secular organization Good People Dinners in San Francisco, for example, rather than a traditional faith community.

The community has no formal relationship to a Synagogue, denomination or Rabbi. This was a conscious choice for Cheskis-Gold, who wanted Pop-Up Shabbat to be a place where all felt welcome and there was no need for participants to commit theologically.  Indeed, the lack of affiliation ensures that the gathering remains Jew-ish, rather than formally Jewish, and appeals particularly to Millennials.

Finally, the desire for tradition is worthy of note. Too often, religious leaders look toward the new to attract younger participants, when more likely than not, it is traditional practices embedded in modern settings that draw in newcomers.

 

This case study is the first in a series of blog posts exploring innovative religious communities. The research was commissioned by the Fetzer Institute.

ter Kuile & Thurston
About the Author
Casper ter Kuile is a joint Public Policy and Divinity Masters student at Harvard University and co-author of How We Gather. Angie Thurston is a Masters of Divinity student at Harvard Divinity School and co-author of How We Gather.