OneTable, a program that encourages (and pays) young adults to host Shabbat dinners, is coming to Toronto in the fall of 2023

An organization that encourages young American adults to host Shabbat dinners is opening its first Canadian office this fall.

OneTable was created by Aliza Kline in 2014 to address the twin concerns of declining religious engagement among young Jewish people and increasing levels of loneliness in the population overall. It provides support and funding for people to host Shabbat dinners, with funding from the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.

Would-be hosts apply on OneTable’s website and include a description of the dinner they’re planning—not just the menu, but also details like the setting, how many people they’re hosting, if it’s in-person or virtual, if it’s by invitation only or open to other guests, and more.

“Essentially, it’s what we call an Airbnb for Shabbat, if you will, where every week there are do it yourself, home-based curated opportunities for young adults to celebrate Shabbat in whatever way they want,” said Irit Gross, OneTable’s chief advancement officer.

“It can be as traditional as maybe some of us grew up, which was around a dinner table and a roasted chicken all the way to perhaps a sunset on the beach vegan meal.”

Once the dinner is accepted by a OneTable staff member, the host is in the system and it becomes easier for them to host more dinners in the future. They just have to post their dinner information by 11:59 p.m. Tuesday to be approved.

Hosts are eligible for $10 per person attending their Shabbat dinner, with a maximum of $100 for invite-only dinners and $300 for open or host approval dinners. They receive the money as a gift card or code for vendors that partner with OneTable and can use it for resources like grocery stores, prepared food delivery, decor, and more.

So far, OneTable has had 215,000 people attend its dinners, and about 10 per cent have been hosts. Gross says about 60-70 per cent of both hosts and guests are repeat OneTable attendees.

“The reason that we like that is because we are in the business of changing behaviours. We don’t want people to come for a Shabbat dinner or host a Shabbat dinner only once and never come back every Friday night. There’s an opportunity to intentionally set aside this really special time.” 

OneTable provides resources other than just the website and funding. They also offer online Shabbat guides and access to staff members for information, support and coaching.

“(They) help build confidence for those that maybe are on the fence for hosting or on the fence for guesting. And really just making sure everyone, if they send an email or pick up the phone, has someone to be in touch with to understand how they can do Shabbat in their way.”

Jenna Durney has used OneTable to host a variety of Shabbats in Seattle, and says the program has helped bring Shabbat into the lives of both herself and her friends.

“If we didn’t have OneTable, I’m not quite sure how often we would be coordinating something together, let alone do Shabbat as often as we do. Shabbat has become very important to me, and I love the resources that OneTable offers. I think the guides are amazing at helping people host something more intentional with their Shabbats,” she said in an email to The CJN.

“I honestly started simple, with lighting candles and doing a game night. I then realized I had a lot of interfaith couple friends and decided to use the Shabbat manual to set the tone of what Shabbat is and why we do it. I had a number of friends who were struggling with mental and emotional stuff, so I hosted a Shabbat to build space for healing… Right now, I am hoping to get a simple bring-your-own-picnic Shabbat at the lake before summer ends.”

Gross’s research into Toronto and communication with people in its Jewish community showed her that OneTable would be a good fit for the city’s needs. OneTable also does not generally launch in cities without a source of funding secured for three years, which UJA committed to upfront. They are currently hiring for the role of community field manager.

Partnering with OneTable was an easy call for UJA, said chief program officer Daniel Held, because it aligns with the two goals of their strategic plan: reach the greatest number of Jews in Toronto with compelling Jewish experiences, and empower them to lead their own Jewish lives and make their own Jewish decisions.

“We think hosting Shabbat dinner is a core example of what it means to be empowered because the host makes decisions about what ritual they will do, what ritual they will not do, who will be invited, who sits around a table, what kinds of foods they will serve, and how that symbolizes Shabbat for them. And I think that’s a really important piece of being empowered. It takes knowledge and courage and passion to host others around the table.”