Good food, candlelight, wine and conversation after a long week is the quintessential (hoped-for) weekend plan, whether it’s for a night out, or — as it is for many Jews — for a Friday-night dinner. But for married couples that host weekly Shabbat dinners, each Friday night also represents an opportunity to help singles who might otherwise go unfed physically, spiritually or romantically.
While Shabbat home hospitality committees exist in many communities, they operate on the premise that single people a) will be going to synagogue and b) will be comfortable asking for a place at someone else’s table, both of which they may not. Plus, many homes allocate only one space for guests; for a single at a family’s home, this can be even lonelier than solitude. But if married couples take the lead in offering places at their table to several singles a week, they can provide a socially and spiritually inspiring experience to the uncoupled.
This is the simple organizing principle behind Frieda’s Table (for more info go to makom.org) a new L.A.-based initiative designed to curb loneliness among Jewish singles in their 30s and 40s, while encouraging them to expand their circles socially. “I feel very lucky that I was able to find a great partner and that we were able to have children,” says Rabbi Debra Orenstein, a pulpit rabbi and prolific author who founded the project. Because she married in her 40s, “I’m very sympathetic to people who don’t meet their bashert early on. Now as a married woman, I have a different opportunity to express that sympathy.”
When she was single, Orenstein craved positive, compassionate programs with meaningful Jewish content. “There’s a dearth of programs that were worthwhile,” she remembers, “where you’d be glad you came even if you didn’t meet anyone special.” She thought that she could control the environment better; by keeping it small, starting with Shabbat dinners and having equal numbers of eligible men and women at each meal, she could encourage positive Jewish programming and create a casual atmosphere for social interaction among local singles.
The program is named after Orenstein’s great-aunt Frieda. Frieda had been engaged in her twenties to someone famous, but soon realized that he was treating her “as one of the many moons in his orbit,” as Orenstein put it. Frieda broke it off, stayed single, and had a great life and career, even becoming a Dean at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work. At 40, she met a guy with two teenage kids, and married him. “Frieda never made anyone feel bad about being single and she liked to set people up,” her grand-niece recalls. “This program is a tribute to her.”
In an era of organized matchmaking and Internet dating services that conspire to match people on a micro level of interests, involvements and life priorities, Orenstein is quick to explain that she doesn’t consider herself “the perfect shadchanit” (matchmaker). She never can tell who’s going to like whom, and she admits that she meets “a lot more single Jewish women who are eligible than Jewish men,” noting that she “goes trolling for men to round out the numbers at the table, finding them through friends of friends.” From one of her meals, two people dated, and ended the relationship only because of religious incompatibilities. They then stayed friends, “increasing the odds by increasing community.”
While many singles programs focus on those in their 20s and early 30s, Orenstein says that she felt a special calling to reach out to women in their 30s and 40s, who experience the particular heartbreak of feeling the biological clock ticking. “It’s a Jewish communal obligation to help people find one another. The Jewish community is concerned about intermarriage and children, so we need to create venues in which Jews can meet other Jews in a positive Jewish context and can actually hear each other speak,” she says, referring to Jewish singles events held in impossibly loud venues.
After a Frieda’s Table meal, Orenstein debriefs her guests individually, to find out what went well and what needs improvement. All past participants said they’d do it again, and they all requested more explanation and more conversational directive from Orenstein. Putting on her rabbi’s hat for a moment, she notes the potential for an organization like this to act in a kiruv (Jewish outreach) aspect. “People looking for a partner might also find that they appreciate a traditional Shabbat.”
Orenstein’s partners in this venture are her husband and her trusted friends, who suggest names of singles who are truly eligible and open to meeting someone. “Many people assume you have to be alike to be compatible, which is a big dating mistake. Every marriage has observance issues to negotiate. People who have good marriages are lucky, and we should facilitate that for someone else.”
Esther D. Kustanowitz seems to spend a lot of time with Jews in Los Angeles. To find out what that’s about, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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