December 4, 2019

Shabbat Dinner: Cornell Edition

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Around 6:30 p.m. on a Friday, if you walk past 102 Willard Way, you’ll see a group of men with thick beards armed with Kippahs and prayer books. At this time, they’re deep in focus, unified in prayer, speaking the Hebrew words that welcome in the Shabbat — the holiest day of the week. Around the world, thousands of synagogues join. Walk past the same building an hour later, and the sights and sounds of 102 Willard Way will be those you can’t find in synagogues anywhere else. Friday night Shabbat dinner is a culinary and cultural spectacle only the Chabad at Cornell can do.

Dinner is not just a meal here, but a time to become connected with a community. Long dining tables create a communal and inviting atmosphere, allowing people to connect with not only their friends, but also other fellow Shabbat-goers. When you enter, you may be greeted by a rabbi, who won’t sit down at the table until he knows you have a place to sit and a plate of food in your hands. The environment is cell-phone free, promoting human connection over screen-time. In Jewish law, it’s forbidden to use phones on Shabbat, and it is beautiful how such a simple rule allows for dozens of people — Jews and non-Jews — to talk and laugh, rather than scroll and type.

Because Chabad is Kosher, there are some aspects of a typical dinner that won’t be found here — there is no menu, no mixing of meat and milk and certainly no pork. When the feeling that food is coming arises, the room quiets down in anticipation and the Rabbi blesses the challah. This bread is ceremonious, with a warm, salty crust and fluffy inside that makes you want to eat a full loaf. It goes well with snacks that have been on the table since you first sit down — hummus, eggplant and jerky. Next, matzo ball soup comes around, helping wash down the bread. Reminiscent of Katz’s Deli’s famous matzo ball soup, each bowl comes with one giant matzo and plenty of warm broth. Soft and full of matzo flavor, the soup recalls childhood memories of my grandma cooking fresh matzo for Passover.

Once finished with soup, we all stand in line, impatient to fill our plates with the main course. This past weekend, we had potato kugel, rice with vegetables and chicken thighs. The families of Chabad prepare every dish with care and energy, and it is a bold task for less than 10 people to cook dinner for close to 100 hungry guests. The aroma of the chicken permeated the room, its rich spice marinade complemented by the mellowness of the potato kugel.

While the meal at Shabbat dinner is filling and delicious, it is certainly not the highlight of the evening. The presence of everybody in the room is what gives the humble space a cozy feel: The group of students squished together on the couch, talking about their weeks; the Rabbis and their families, donating time and energy to prepare the meal; the dozens who attend, giving their attention to their peers. When all of these come together, we have a Shabbat dinner — and that is a spectacle you will find only at the Roitman Chabad Center.