Shabbat goes universal
April 24, 2012 | Suri Epstein - Correspondent
TORONTO – Six years ago Ralph Benmergui was filming a series for Vision Television in Cortes Island, BC, when he was invited to a Friday night Shabbat dinner with an unusual twist. Each guest at the table was asked to offer a personal blessing.
Benmergui was even more fascinated when he discovered that the hostess was not even Jewish.
Back in Toronto, he and his wife, journalist and educator Cortney Pasternak, decided to create their own version of that experience.
“I came from a Sephardic traditional home where I grew up with Friday night meals and Saturday lunches,” Benmergui said. “Cortney came from a secular Jewish home and they didn’t do those things.” The ‘hybrid’ couple set out to create a pluralistic event.
They began hosting Friday night dinners that were open to all kinds of guests; old friends and new, Jewish and non-Jewish. “Anyone is welcome,” Benmergui said. “No matter what their level of engagement is.”
The dinner starts with a blessing on the candles, wine, and bread. “Then we do blessings around the table,” Pasternak said. “That seems to demarcate this from a regular dinner party. It resonates with people. You’re no longer just having chit chat and going home.”
The experience is transformative for many participants.
“We end up talking through the blessings of pretty personal things,” Pasternak said. “I’ve had people burst into tears because they’ve been thinking of something all week and they’re suddenly sharing something. Their reactions are profound by the time they leave.”
It’s been six years since the couple began their project. In that time, they’ve hosted a wide variety of guests at their table, ranging from teenaged Parkdale Church members to a vice-president of a major television network.
As a result of the success of the dinners, the couple decided to share the concept through their blog, The New Sabbath Project. The purpose is to encourage individuals to reach out to neighbours, colleagues and strangers in a meaningful manner.
“What we’re trying to do in a conscious way is to use this great export of Judaism, the Sabbath, to create community and citizenship,” Benmergui said.
Noting both the isolation of city living and the tyranny of work, the couple became even more committed to the New Sabbath Project after Pasternak ran for office in the last election.
“I was so disheartened by the lack of citizen engagement, the lack of true community, and the partisan divide,” she said. “We both were.”
Although the blog is relatively new, the effect is starting to reverberate in some far-flung corners of the world. A Maasai tribesman in Kenya who works with orphans and widows contacted them because he was interested in trying the Sabbath project. Pasternak sent him a small cheque to help purchase food. The evening was a success and he has already hosted another Sabbath dinner in Kenya.
The couple celebrate what Benmergui calls “this socially disruptive notion of organized rest. It’s building a community one meal at a time,” he said. “It’s the simple brilliance of Shabbat.”