Chabad feeds Jewish souls with outreach for Shabbat offerings

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Sherri Fink was a little anxious. A Reform Jew, she was spending a Shabbat evening in an Orthodox home, surrounded by unfamiliar faces and customs different from her own. Yet she looks back at that night with the fondness of reminiscing about an old friend.

"There's a flavor in my head of being transported," she recalls, to "a warm house full of holiday smells, things cooking, the noise of children."

"I remember a girl playing with blocks that had Hebrew letters on the side. At first I was very nervous, and it seemed like the Shabbat could feel foreign, but sharing the meal allowed them to meet me at my level without losing their traditions.

"They explained, they taught, they seemed very much like myself," says Fink, a 28-year-old graduate school student at Stanford, who admitted being curious about Chassidic customs.

Others have shared similar experiences.

Thanks to a year-old effort from the Chabad of the Greater South Bay titled the Shabbos Outreach Program, Jews of all levels of observance, including unaffiliated and disaffected, are encouraged to participate in a free-of-charge authentic Orthodox Shabbat.

The program, partially supported by funding from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, regularly attracts 60 to 80 people. The Shabbat services and dinner are held at the Chabad Center in Palo Alto.

The main goal "was to invite people to come to the synagogue…to reach out to non-members," says Rabbi Yosef Levin, executive director of the South Bay Chabad and the program's creator.

"There was no requirement, no cost, no risk. There was no pressure to commit to anything."

Fink concurs. "I was surprised, because I thought that there might be pressure to join the Chabad. But there wasn't any pressure. I didn't feel anything negative from the evening."

The funding came from a bloc grant given to the JCF's South Peninsula office, which in turn awarded $1,800 last August to the South Bay Chabad to expand its Shabbos Outreach Program.

Alvin Platt, director of the South Peninsula office of the JCF, said that the small size of the grant denotes more symbolic than financial support from the South Peninsula. "The Chabad has recently demonstrated their commitment as an outreach organization to our local community," fostering more involvement among uncommitted Jews, he said.

This reportedly was the first funding given to a Chabad from the JCF in many years.

In 1996, the Chabad added $3,600 of its own money to the $1,800 in JCFfunds to cover costs of the program.

This year the federation provided $3,000, to which Chabad plans to add at least $6,000.

The larger grant will allow Chabad to sharpen the program's focus. "This year's [funding serves] four specific programs, targeting four groups: families with young children, teens, college-age students and singles," says Levin.

Batsheva Williamson, the program coordinator, explains, "We felt that if Shabbat dinners would have a theme, then more people would be interested."

This plan has paid off. It has helped both fuel discussion at the dinners and encouraged so many people to attend that one evening, organizers were forced to turn people away at the door.

Like Fink, many of the guests say they don't feel pressured to lead Orthodox lives, according to Williamson. "The only negative thing that was ever said to me was that [the attendee] felt very uncomfortable that we didn't charge money."

Fink said one of the reasons she attended was to learn more about Orthodox Jews. "I felt really disconnected from Chassidic Jews. Here are people that share my religion and I don't know what they do or how they live."

Much of the program's popularity, according to Williamson, comes from the same curiosity and lack of knowledge about traditional Shabbat practices that led her to Chabad's dinner table years ago. "Chabad reignited the spark for my spiritual side."

Others agree. Pam Machefsky, currently a Chabad member, was unaffiliated until 14 years ago, when the Chabad movement rekindled her "Jewish spark."

Williamson describes the participants of the program as "varied."

"Most of our attendees were professionals and students, and some seniors. Everybody brought somebody," she added.

Although Williamson does not know of any participants who joined the Chabad, Machefsky, who describes herself as "close to 50," vividly remembers a young man who had just moved from Ohio and took part in one of the dinners.

"His wife was not there because she was pregnant," Machefsky recalls, "and the next thing we knew he wanted to have a traditional bris. That was a very rewarding experience."

Fink highlighted the singing and the food as contributing to the experience, but was most excited about the opportunity to learn about Orthodox Jews in their natural environment.

"It was a neat look into that way of observing Judaism."