I remember a symposium that took place during my year in Israel (2012–13) on the HUC-JIR Jerusalem campus. The subject of the two-day conference was a relatively recent and unfamiliar Hebrew word for a familiar and well-founded idea: עמּיות (amiyut), or ‘peoplehood’. The discussion made me realize that the Jewish people have many different notions of what it means to be a group or to have a collective identity, and I was left with the question of how a group creates communal identity. While concepts of community and peoplehood do not entirely overlap, both involve the idea of belonging. In the case of the Jewish people, my question becomes even more complicated when one considers geographical, ethnic, and cultural variety.
I have revisited this question in each year of my Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellowship on the Cincinnati campus, first as a rabbinic fellow at Hillel of Miami University, then at the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education, at I. M. Wise Temple, and now as the co-founder of The Table, a pilot program funded by Sacred Service Learning Fellowship. At each phase of my sacred service-learning, I have observed how Jewish community is organized and reinforced. The impetus for The Table came from a belief that my partner, wife, and colleague, Rachael Miller, and I held about how we could create an actively Jewish community of young Jewish professionals in Cincinnati.
The goal of The Table is to encourage Jewish young professionals in the Cincinnati area who are post-college and pre-family to develop a Jewish identity through Shabbat home rituals. The community of Shabbat dinner attendees began by reaching out to friends we made at the local Jewish young professional social organization, Access. In an effort to broaden our community in Cincinnati, we turned to these new friends and invited them to our home for Shabbat dinner. We assigned them a dish to bring and, when they arrived, we made Shabbat an evening affair which was joyful, inclusive, and accessible. This practice went on for a year, but we did not have larger aspirations for our Shabbat dinner table until a very particular and now quite memorable Shabbat.
One night we hosted a large group of friends, and I was discussing a current project of mine for a class on biomedical ethics. The assignment was to find a current biomedical issue and consider the implications through a Jewish, and specifically a halakhic lens. I chose to write about a recent news article regarding the third-ever attempted penis transplant for a US military veteran. We did not expect the level of participation that we received from the attendees. Everyone sincerely engaged in a discussion of how Judaism could have something cogent to say about such a random news clip.
That evening we felt we had a bigger chance than we might originally have expected to help others to create a communal identity around Shabbat observance. For the host, the feeling of preparing and dining with friends both new and familiar around one table can be a spiritual experience. For the guests, the experience of being welcomed into a home exemplifies Jewish values that are vital to furthering one’s involvement in the Jewish community. What I hope we will create is a small example of peoplehood — of community — around Shabbat evening rituals. I dream that in twenty years this cohort of Jews will lead the Jewish community further in a direction of sincere and nuanced engagement in Jewish ritual and study that enriches the communal life of all Jews in the Cincinnati area.
Max Miller is currently a part of The Table, a pilot project which engages young Jewish professionals in Cincinnati around the Shabbat dinner table.