Connecting with the other

We should build on the Shabbat Project by reaching out beyond the community

Shabbat table (photo credit: BERNADETT SZABO / REUTERS)
Shabbat table
HERE IS a line in “To Kill a Mockingbird” which strikes a chord with the Jewish condition.
The book is the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman in the American Deep South in 1933. The saga evokes predictable racial prejudices, with Finch branded “nigger lover” and a mob attempting to lynch Robinson.
The mob is eventually shamed into abandoning its bloodlust.
Says Finch to his daughter, Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
It is a concept encapsulated in the Japanese term oyakudachi – walking in the shoes of the other, and looking at the other as if you are that person. Only then can you understand how that person feels.
In late October, hundreds of thousands of people in 350 cities around the world came together in various forums to breathe life into the concept, which has gained remarkable momentum as “The Shabbat Project” – Jews keeping one Shabbat together across the globe.
In countries ranging from Australia, China, Uruguay, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Panama to Brazil, South Africa, Poland, Germany, Venezuela, Peru and Guatemala, it was billed as an endeavor “being built for the community by the community.” The concept generated a sense of unity both within communities and among Jews globally.
Which is where Finch’s exhortation about walking inside another’s skin comes into play.
What if we took the principle of the Shabbat Project and built on it? Extended it beyond the community? The Shabbat Project encourages us to metaphorically open our Shabbat table to other Jews. What if we opened our Shabbat table – literally and metaphorically – beyond the Jewish community? What if we began making a practice of inviting friends and colleagues from beyond the community to Shabbat dinner on occasional Friday nights? It would be a disarmingly simple but extraordinarily effective way of engaging with others, breaking down barriers, building bridges and exposing and sharing Jewish traditions and customs in a congenial environment.
The idea is in keeping with the Jewish value of welcoming guests – which is modelled on Abraham and Sarah, who made a virtue of warmly welcoming and feeding guests who arrived at their tent unexpectedly. Equally, it finds an echo in the Hellenic tradition of philoxenia (hospitality), where Greeks take pride in welcoming the stranger.
We live in a climate of heightened tension and disturbing levels of global anti-Semitism. One way of working to reduce those levels is to connect with others. If the colloquial definition of racism – dislike of the unlike – holds water, engaging with others in a cordial setting and giving them an opportunity to discover close up that the differences between their hosts and themselves are eclipsed by the similarities is a simple yet potentially effective strategy.
Discussing effective ways to build relationships, former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says it’s not enough to sit and talk; there needs to be a meaningful connection –what he terms “side by side,” whether in intercultural relations or at the dinner table.
We can and should build on the principle of the Shabbat Project by reaching out beyond the community. The benefit will be to each of us and to all of us. As Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the US, put it: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
 Vic Alhadeff is chief executive officer of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies in Sydney, Australia. Twitter: @VicAlhadeff