Shabbat Clusters Revamped: Bonding Over A Friday Night Meal

4385237204_8961b01dca_zA few weeks ago my friend (and neighbor) texted me on Friday and said she wanted to host Shabbat dinner. We decided I would bring the veggies and she would make the main dish and then I got to messaging people to join us. I had to think carefully about who to invite because at the time, Snowzilla was gearing up to take over Arlington and I was not quite sure how people would be able to get to us. I messaged two friends who lived in Clarendon and Ballston, my Jewish and non-Jewish roommate, and an acquaintance who wanted to get involved in the community. After everyone had dusted off their snow boots and sat down at the table, my acquaintance became oh-so-curious as to how everyone knew me, the only common denominator in the room.

We laughed as everyone shared their stories of how we met. One guy friend explained how he thought he was going on a “date” with our mutual friend but wound up crashing my huge Shabbat dinner party. My roommate talked about how she came out to Lox Meets Bagel, a dating event I hosted, looking for a guy and I wound up “picking her up” as she needed to find a place to live and I had a spot open in my apartment. Another guy friend teased me about how we met six years ago at a speed dating event and have kept the friendship going ever since (Anyone else noticing a theme here?)

Was it a little uncomfortable mixing my friend groups and bringing together a room full of strangers? Yes. There were moments of awkward silence, but we quickly bonded over our love of the same TV shows and that most of us did not know the blessing for hand-washing that our host graciously printed out and placed near her bathroom sink. (Wait, there is a hand-washing blessing?) Overall the night was a success- people became friends on Facebook and one person even wanted do a set-up between one of my guests and one of their friends. Snowzilla Shabbat brought this motley crew together for a meal and it got me thinking about the concept of Shabbat Clusters, the program I am currently revamping for work and participated in off and on for the past eight years.

Shabbat Clusters is a program the DCJCC runs twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. Each session 150-200 young professionals sign up to be placed in a “Shabbat Cluster,” a group of 10-14 people that come together for monthly potluck style Shabbat dinners. Groups are for singles and couples and are formed based on location, age, and sometimes observance level and interests.

Sometimes the groups became BFFs and other times the groups fizzled after meeting twice. I wondered, did everyone in the room get along at Snowzilla Shabbat because I held the group together? Was it because we had similar interests or knowledge of Shabbat rituals? Maybe because we all lived in the same general neighborhood? Would anyone from the dinner organize a second Shabbat meal without me taking the lead?

One addition to the program this season is a Shabbat Cluster Committee. Each committee member will lead a cluster and help members decide when and where monthly dinners take place. They will make sure the group gels, and help guide dinner conversations when needed. I asked some of our new committee members to tell me more about their experiences with Shabbat Clusters and their thoughts regarding how the Shabbat Clusters program will be different this season.

Stacy: How long have you been involved with Shabbat clusters and why have you continued joining a cluster?

Geno: I’ve honestly lost track of how many clusters I’ve attended.  I think it’s in the 6-7 range.  I mostly keep going because they are fun, a good way to meet new people and make friends.  I’m not very plugged into the Jewish community, so this is a great way to get a foot in that door without a huge commitment.  I’m also single, and Clusters are great ways to meet other Jewish singles without the pressure of being at a dating/singles event.  They are best when you go with a friend, having a wingman never hurts. I am looking forward to being on the committee. In college I was very involved in Hillel, student government, a business fraternity, etc, but since I’ve moved to DC, I haven’t really given much of my time back.  I want to help the program succeed and grow since it’s been a big part of my Jewish identity here in DC.

Stacy: Josh, at the Mid-Season Shabbat Cluster Mixer we talked about your love of biking and you were excited when I told you we were going to be adding interest specific  Shabbat Clusters to our program this year. What aspect of the updated Shabbat Cluster program appeals to you the most?

Josh: I’ve always loved the idea of the Shabbat Clusters program, but none of my clusters have ever really worked out. It seems everyone has their own motivations for joining a Shabbat Cluster. If the cluster itself ceases to align with those expectations or motivations, participants abandon the group rather than attempt to find common ground. In some ways, I believe this is a reflection on the local culture here in Washington, DC. Stereotypically, we are ambitious, outspoken, highly motivated, moderately conceited, and extremely busy, which is a terrible recipe for encouraging any degree of flexibility in a social setting. Introducing very specific “Interest Clusters” is a pragmatic step toward resolving this problem because it establishes a meaningful common ground between the members of each cluster before they even meet for the first time. For example, a Shabbat Cluster catered toward outdoor enthusiasts could include hikers, climbers, cyclists, urban explorers, skiers/snowboarders, laser tag enthusiasts, etc., which means the members have activities they can always fall back on. Perhaps more importantly, hobbies like these are usually indicative of significant lifestyle choices and personality types, which are also likely to improve the chances of creating a meaningful and lasting rapport between participants. Interest Clusters are also then enabled to vary their gatherings and include activities other than or in addition to the actual Shabbat meal.

Stacy: Rachel, we recently met for the first time. I was so impressed with your friendly demeanor and willingness to get involved with the community that I invited you to be a part of not one, but two EntryPointDC programs (Rachel and other comedians with perform stand-up and improv at our Kiss and Kvell comedy show)  Why did you want to sign up for Shabbat Clusters program and join the Shabbat Cluster committee?

Rachel: I believe there is no better way to get to know people than over food! I grew up with weekly Shabbat dinners, and can’t wait to share this tradition with new friends.  I’m looking forward to meeting people I otherwise wouldn’t and I can’t wait to learn more about the DC Jewish Community since I recently graduated from school.

Stacy: Sarah, an option for Shabbat Clusters is to be part of a singles or couples cluster.  This year you signed up for clusters with your boyfriend. Tell me about why you wanted him to be involved in the program with you.

Sarah: My boyfriend and I signed up together so we can participate in an activity we can share. It’s always awesome when we find something we both want to do. Who doesn’t like potlucks and schmoozing?  Also, we will both be meeting new couples through the cluster, which is great. I’m looking forward to being on the committee and hoping I can help to keep our cluster motivated and active for the whole session.

You can learn more about Shabbat Clusters on the EntryPointDC website and register. Registration closes March 4th. The cluster season begins with a Kick-off Shabbat Dinner for all participants on Friday, March 11th at the DCJCC.

Featured image and article image taken from flikr.

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