Building Tolerance Through Shabbat

When the sun sets in Jerusalem on Friday the streets of Baka bustle with men, women and children making their way by foot down Lifschytz Street toward Kehillat Yedidya wearing dress shoes and heels.

At this time of year, the Friday night Shabbat service at Yedidya synagogue begins at 7:30 p.m., but Yedidya’s regular members are not the only ones to attend this service.

Twice a month Noomi Stahl welcomes strangers to her home for Shabbat dinner.

Twice a month Noomi Stahl welcomes strangers to her home for Shabbat dinner.

On a weekly basis, Yedidya host families welcome Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Armenian pilgrims, along with many youth groups, scholars and tourists from all over the world into their homes for Shabbat dinner.

“It is interesting and enriching to meet people from places we would otherwise not have an opportunity to talk to,” says Noomi Stahl, a transplanted Swedish Jew who hosts Shabbat guests twice a month with her husband, three daughters and son.

“Shabbat dinner is a highlight of the week,” says Deborah Lionarons, a British-Israeli originally from London. “We are a Zionistic family and from the beginning of the evening we always invite our guests to ask anything about Israel. It is enriching for us as a family to meet people from such different backgrounds and to hear their ideas about religion.”

One thing that both Lionarons and Stahl have learned from their guests is that there are a lot of misconceptions about Israel and Judaism.

“Our guests are often surprised by what they meet in Israel,” Stahl says.

Michael McGarry joined Yedidya member Debbie Weissman for Shabbat service, tifilot and dinner not realizing how this experience would impact him or his Roman Catholic group. Shabbat dinner was the highlight of their trip to Jerusalem and Israel.

“It would be difficult to exaggerate how important this experience is for them as they get to meet more religiously faithful Israelis, and as they get to know that Israeli society is as complicated and variegated as their own,” McGarry wrote in a letter to Weissman.  “There will be more sympathy I think and less stereotyping.”

McGarry’s letter is one of many that Yedidya members have received over the years from their guests.

“We get very moving letters after the meal that it’s the most moving experience they had in Israel,” says Yedidya member Judith Green.

Hosting Internationals

In 1986 Green started the Shabbat dinner project at the young synagogue, which had been founded only six years earlier.

Although she doesn’t recall exactly where the idea came from she distinctly remembers the first group she welcomed into her home for the Sabbath.

The week before the Jewish fast day Tisha B’av Green hosted German theology students and recently married couple, Wolfgang and Annette Schmidt from the University of Heidelberg.

Green’s long-time friend, a teacher of Hebrew and Jewish studies at the University of Heidelberg, contacted her about inviting his group when they visited Jerusalem for a study session, as a way to involve his students in Jewish life.

Noomi and Michael Stahl say hosting guests from all over the world helps their children learn about life outside Israel.

Noomi and Michael Stahl say hosting guests from all over the world helps their children learn about life outside Israel.

Since then, something that began as a favor to a friend has evolved into a real project at Yedidya.

“It was really an extremely wonderful experience,” Green recalls. “We were the first Orthodox synagogue to choose to invite people from other faiths to a service and to people’s homes.”

Although Green received some backlash from members inside the synagogue who claimed that hosting Shabbat dinners left them feeling like part of a museum for Jewish religion, in the years that followed she dealt with the criticism by giving a d’var torah, or teaching, on the morning of Shabbat.

“I gave a talk on the portion of the week that has to do with Abraham when he hosts the three angels,” Green says.

“There’s a beautiful scene in Genesis where these three strangers walk by in front of Abraham’s tent and he spontaneously runs out and says ‘Stop, wait, come into our tent and I’ll prepare a meal for you.’ And he does, and they turn out to be angels although he thought they were just people. It’s a very important scene in Christian art and in Christianity in general as a premonition of the trinity and for Jews for the concept of hospitality,” she says. “Abraham is a symbol of haknesset, the bringing of guests, and that’s where it started.”

To this day, Shabbat dinners have continued as an important part of Yedidya’s principle of welcoming others.  For the 30 years that the congregation has offered this experience, members have collectively hosted 6,000 people.

“It’s important for your home to be open for strangers because you don’t know what they are or what they might be bringing to you, which certainly turns out to be true from my experiences,” Green says.

She is not the only one to experience this.

Stahl says she could write a book about all the things she has learned from welcoming others into her home.

Lionarons has many stories as well.

“A couple of hours over a table can somehow bring the world into the room and gives the sense of a shared humanity,” she says.

Multi-Faith Dialogue

Multi-faith dialogue is very important to these women.

“Religious people of any faith have a better understanding of other religions because they understand the fundamentals of religious thought,” Stahl says.  “There are people thirsty for a spiritual experience everywhere.”

Stahl’s husband, Michael, who works for Intel, is often away travelling for work.  When he is at home before the meal he blesses each of their four children, a common Sabbath tradition.

“Guests seem to find that remarkable and touching,” says Stahl. “One guest who is a devout Christian and has been to our house a few times told us that he has started to bless his children in the same way.”

The three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – share elements, which Green tries to bring out at the dinner table.

As part of the Sabbath, she steers the meal’s conversation towards serious topics, such as the Bible portion read at the synagogue or about the different dynamics of churches because many of the individuals who partake in Shabbat are ministers or pastors.

“They tell us afterwards that, ‘it’s an interesting idea that you do this, this way in your synagogue or in your home,’ and, ‘maybe we can also do something similar in our Bible study groups or with our congregations,” Green says.

These shared perspectives between different faiths enrich the evening’s experience.

“Friday night dinner can be a way to build bridges between us and our guests,” says Stahl.

Building friendships

Some of these bridges made while blessing the wine and breaking the bread evolve into lasting friendships.

Last year, Green’s family received an e-mail from the couple they hosted in 1986.

Although they had lost touch when the couple returned to Heidelberg in 1986, Wolfgang and Annette Schmidt found Green’s contact information again in 2011.

“They had looked us up because they were coming back, not just coming back, but he became a very important Lutheran minister, and he was appointed the provost of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City,” says Green.  “This guy who was a student had been our guest.”

When the Schmidts returned to Jerusalem, Green met them, remembering their evening 26 years earlier.

“My daughter, who at the time was only 3, when I told her that they were coming back, somehow remembered them, and went through this whole pile of photographs that we have, and she picked out a Polaroid that had been taken when they visited us,” Green says.

Green and the Schmidts rekindled the friendship started through Yedidya’s first Shabbat dinner in 1986.  This Polaroid was passed around the table at their next meeting 23 years later.

The sharing of religious traditions between religious and nonreligious people leaves each person at the dinner table with a new perspective, a greater appreciation for their own customs and an understanding of others traditions.  According to Green, Lionarons, and Stahl this is an important part of Shabbat.

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