Growing up in Cincinnati, Jeff Zipkin remembers his family’s Shabbat dinners. Mothers started cooking “a day or two in advance,” and on Friday the family would gather together and friends would be called.
But that kind of community-driven Judaism is not what Zipkin saw in 2022. Mothers of days gone by might have had a couple of days to prepare for Shabbat dinner – but not the young people of today.
“They’re too busy with work, and it’s hard,” he said.
That’s why Zipkin co-founded Friday Night Shabbat, an initiative to provide free Shabbat dinners to young Jewish families in Cincinnati, hosted by various Jewish organizations throughout the city. Shabbat, he notes, is the iconic Jewish celebration; it comes every week, and, of course, “people have to eat,” Zipkin said. He sees Shabbat as the low-hanging fruit that can increase Jewish engagement in Cincinnati.
Bringing back an old-school sense of community is also why Shelly Gerson, Zipkin’s friend and the co-founder of Friday Night Shabbat, is involved in the initiative.
Growing up in Cincinnati, Gerson remembers all the Jews in the city felt clustered together in just a few Jewish neighborhoods, such as Roselawn, Bond Hill, and eventually, Amberley. Butin the 1980s, Gerson saw, the community began to disperse farther into the suburbs of Cincinnati, and then to entirely other cities like Chicago and New York.
Gerson sees a downside to the Jewish community being so spread out: “There’s no center,” she said — no geographical ties to Jewish life for many people. Jews in the city may not have any siblings, parents or grandparents in the area, leaving them “no reason to gather,” Gerson said. Many young Jews also struggle to make Jewish observance part of their life.
“Many of them work and they are exhausted on Friday,” Gerson said.
Zipkin agrees. His own children were experiencing similar problems, even with family in town. In a familiar story to many Cincinnati Jews, Zipkin’s children grew up, moved away, but, in time, decided to come back to Cincinnati. The Zipkins tried to arrange Shabbat dinners at their children’s homes, but instead the children kept coming to them.
As working parents with little kids, Zipkin’s children could only manage to do Shabbat if he and his wife organized it for them. And over time, Zipkin’s children started inviting their own friends. “So many people are from out of town… they seem to be in Cincinnati on their own and my kids would sometimes say, ‘Well, can we invite this one? Can we invite that one?’” Zipkin said. So he and Gerson decided to start up Friday Night Shabbat
The hard part was figuring out how to make it work financially. They approached local congregations: Could the synagogues of Cincinnati solve part of their problem? Would they be willing to serve as venues for Shabbat dinners – independent of services, membership, without cost and no strings attached? An inter-community, cooperative venture without their name on it?
Without exception, Zipkin says, the congregations were easy to sell on the idea. “One after the other,” they were “enthusiastic to do it,” he said.
Having had the idea, worked on the funding, the community buy-in, and the venues, they turned to market research, aka: their children.
Barriers to access were what Zipkin’s and Gerson’s kids wanted to avoid. They and their friends felt that two things were essential.
“It has to be free,” they said to Zipkin. What would you charge, in any case? Twenty dollars a head might cover the costs, but no one would pay it. They might pay $5, but then what would be the point? The dinners, they insisted, must be without cost.
The congregations were eventually convinced the dinners should be free, but what about RSVPs? They’d need to have names, emails to follow up with, and numbers for the food.
Nope, the Gerson and Zipkin kids said. You have to make it easy. There can be an RSVP process but it couldn’t be a requirement. Zipkin says young people sometimes decide only the day of what they are going to do for dinner. With such short notice, many Jews either wouldn’t fill out the RSVP or would think it’s too late to do so and not come to dinner.
Besides, what if, like Zipkin’s kids back when he was hosting the Shabbat dinners, they wanted to bring a friend?
Why throw up barriers to success? “We’re not strict,” Zipkin said. Friday Night Shabbat dinners are ostensibly for families with a child under 13 but Zipkin just wants people to come. “Bring a friend!” he encourages.
And almost 4 months in, how are things going? The response has been very good, Zipkin and Gerson said.
The synagogues are thrilled with the numbers they’ve been seeing. And Zipkin and Gerson have expanded beyond synagogue walls to other Jewish-affiliated locations. Rockwern Academy, one of the local Jewish day schools, has hosted a dinner where over 100 people showed up. Another dinner at the newer kosher restaurant, Cafe Alma, saw 170 attendees. Soon there will also be a dinner at the ish Garage, an experimental Jewish space that defies neat categorization.
Zipkin and Gerson have plans for some big community events over the summer. They fully intend to extend Friday Night Shabbat into the next school year, though the original run was to end in May.
Families being familiar with local Jewish institutions, Zipkin and Gerson believe, is vital to the future of Jewish Cincinnati, particularly as synagogues struggle to engage young families. They also hope Friday Night Shabbat is a fun opportunity to share and be exposed to Jewish practice, hear a little Hebrew, and provide a chance to meet other young Jewish families.
Their only barrier to success? Reaching the people they don’t know how to reach. Those so disconnected they can’t be reached through ads in the American Israelite, promotion at the JCC, through synagogue bulletins or other traditional pushes from Jewish institutions.
This is why it is so important, Zipkin said, for participants to tell their friends about Friday Night Shabbat. “If you run into somebody who is Jewish, tell them about it,” he said.