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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

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Shul kiddush is about more than food

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Some synagogues see it as a key way to fulfil their mission of providing outlets
for holy encounters  

Rabbi Adam Scheier
Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, Montreal

Rabbi Adam Cutler
Beth Tzedec Congregation, Toronto

Rabbi Cutler: At any given time, I am blessed with mentoring about 10 individuals in the process of converting to Judaism. When reviewing our Shabbat services, I tell them when shul begins and ends. Like most of our congregants, I don’t expect them to leave the building once Adon Olam is concluded. In fact, I stress that if they want to be Jewish, they have to stay for kiddush.
There is, of course, no Jewish legal reason for a person to eat babka and pasta salad (we have a pretty decent kiddush at Beth Tzedec) in order to convert to Judaism. Rather, in the socializing that occurs, I see an important transformation take place: the move from outsider to insider. At kiddush, I see the establishment of Jewish peoplehood.

Rabbi Scheier: Our kiddushes at the Shaar are famous. Party sandwiches, egg rolls, the occasional cholent, Israeli salad, eggs, noodles, special kid-friendly fare.
But more than the food, it’s the conversations that intrigue me. Groups of congregants sit around for hours at kiddush discussing all kinds of topics (including the sermon). If our synagogue’s mission is to provide an outlet for holy encounters, then kiddush is one of those times when our mission is realized. I believe that in terms of community-building, Shabbat kiddush is one of our synagogue’s most important programs.
Also of interest to me are those individuals we call JFKs – those who arrive “just for kiddush.” If we can see kiddush as a program of its own merit, then we shouldn’t mind that people show up for that program and are absent from the Shabbat service that precedes it.

Rabbi Cutler: Thank you for adding another Jewish acronym to my vocabulary. Based on your menu alone, I’m not surprised about how many JFKs your shul attracts.
If kiddush has value in and of itself (and I think we both agree that it does), then just as we invite people to come to shul for monthly meditation, we should equally tell people that they are welcome to attend our weekly kiddush – even if that’s the only “program” they are attending at shul.
Of course, all of this comes with a cost. Two synagogues – one in the Hamptons, the other in Bal Harbor, Fla., – made the news last year for extravagant kiddushes, with each shul reportedly spending $10,000 per week. Where’s the line? How do we measure impact?

Rabbi Scheier: I believe that the investment a congregation makes in its kiddush should correspond to the degree to which it sees kiddush as part of its core mission. Is it a kiddush that takes nutritional value into account, accommodating those who, out of financial need, look to our kiddush as a primary source of sustenance? Is it a kiddush that provides youth-friendly fare to encourage children and young families to attend and thereby deepen their connection to community? Is it a kiddush that offers study opportunities and programming to enrich the spiritual value of the time spent at kiddush? If a congregation can truly view kiddush as part of its core mission, then a significant investment in kiddush is justified (and even encouraged).

Rabbi Cutler: Your kiddush descriptions and what I’ve experienced first hand at other Montreal shuls are beginning to make me reconsider my hockey allegiances and perhaps get on the Canadiens bandwagon.
Kiddush can be very good at catching up with friends. I worry, though, about those who are new to our communities. While as the rabbi I am happy to float from table to table, saying hello to the regulars and introducing myself to new faces, for those who are unfamiliar with the synagogue, kiddush can be a very intimidating event.
What mechanisms can we add to kiddush, without being awkward or overly contrived, that will enable newcomers to feel more welcomed?

Rabbi Scheier: The answer hinges on our ability to treat kiddush as a program of engagement. We – clergy and lay leadership – must take our responsibility as “hosts” of the kiddush very seriously. Of course, this responsibility extends to the quality of the food, kiddush programming content, and any other efforts that will affect the overall mood in the room. What a lofty purpose for tables of kichel, herring, and cholent. n

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