My mom has a bit of a reputation for cooking and baking, and not just within my family. Our friends near and far look forward to our Shabbat dinners for the company-and my mom's fantastic food. They are also astounded at how she can make a Shabbat dinner this good while working all day.
The main reason my mom is committed to making Shabbat dinner is to welcome people into our community and others who don't have a place to go on Friday night. My dad, too, goes out of his way to make our guests feel as if they have known my family their entire lives, translating the blessings into English, and explaining the Torah portion so all can understand.
I especially looked forward to meeting new people, seeing familiar faces at our dinner table and the aroma of my mom's famous "cookie bars." Fridays were always my favorite days.
Then I left for college.
During my first week at Washington University in St. Louis, I attended Shabbat dinner with some new friends. The Hillel staff was warm and welcoming, and the challah was acceptable-not as tasty as my mom's, but acceptable. I could feel my new Shabbat community forming. Afterward, I made it my mission to celebrate Shabbat every week and to find a community of like-minded people.
Here are some tips for finding a Shabbat community based on what I did my freshman year when I was far from the comfort of the smells, tastes, and faces of Shabbat at home.
Find a friend who will go with you to Shabbat dinner consistently.
Nothing is scarier for some people than walking into a crowded room and not knowing anyone. Finding a friend who is also interested in going to Shabbat dinner each week is a good resource to have, especially in the beginning. By the end of the year, you won't even need to think about it because you will already know people.
Try to bring a new friend to Shabbat every week, even if they aren't Jewish.
The people you are with will improve your Shabbat experience and the company of new and old friends can feel like family, even when you are away from home. People at my school are also really interested in learning about cultures and trying new experiences, and love to come with me to Shabbat dinners. Try to find a new friend to bring each week, and maybe they will become a regular.
Join Challah for Hunger, or some other Shabbat baking club or group.
I really enjoy baking challah with Challah for Hunger. The people involved are a real constant on Friday nights. Even if you aren't on a campus, cooking Shabbat dinner with friends can be fun and helps build community.
Try to attend a variety of different Shabbat dinners, if possible.
One great part of living away from home is that you aren't obligated to have Shabbat in the same place week after week. Take the rabbi up on his offer to have Shabbat dinner at his house or that distant family member who lives nearby. I went to a friend of a friend's house once; I learned about their family's traditions and I got a real taste of home.
Go to Shabbat lunch for a change.
A lot of people on my campus and in cities are shomer Shabbat, which means that they can't work on Shabbat, or more specifically, do not drive, spend money, or use electronics. So, a lot of people on my campus attend Shabbat lunch at Hillel or Chabad. In my experience, the environment is much less formal than Shabbat dinner, but people still enjoy each other's company and eat amazing food.
This coming semester, I hope to expand my Shabbat community. I will continue to miss our family table, but I know that fostering a Shabbat community at school allows me to have a whole other family on campus.