By R.M. Grossblatt
For several weeks, every time I drove by Congregation Beth Jacob on LaVista Road, I saw the large white banner with colorful confetti jumping off the words: “Shabbat BLOCK PARTY Kiddush Luncheon, October 24, 11:30 AM, Open to the Community.”
In all the years that I’ve been a member of BJ (about 40), I never recall stepping out on LaVista for Kiddush, and certainly not for a sit-down luncheon. But after services on Shabbat morning, that’s exactly what I, along with other members and guests, did to celebrate the World-Wide Shabbat Project.
Around 10 that morning as I was walking the three blocks to shul, I felt a cool breeze and saw a clear blue sky — a perfect day for an outdoor luncheon. At Beth Jacob’s front parking lot, I spotted Lydia Schloss of the Spicy Peach, directing those setting up tables.
“Do you need help?” I asked, hoping she would say no so I could hear the rabbi’s speech. To my relief, she replied that she had plenty of help.
As soon as I opened the door to the lobby of the shul, I smelled the spicy scent of cholent, a stewlike dish of meat, beans and potatoes that cooks in a huge Crock-Pot overnight. The smell was so strong because lots of Crock-Pots were needed for the crowd they expected.
Although there was a flurry of activity in the foyer of the shul, all was quiet inside the sanctuary as Rabbi Ilan Feldman began his sermon. He spoke about the parshah of the week, Lech Lecha, joking that it had something to do with our block party on the parking lot (the name of Abraham’s nephew is Lot).
Then he was serious. “We’re very good at surviving … overcoming persecution,” he said, “but we’re not familiar with what to do if we are not being held back.”
Rabbi Ilan said Abraham, our ancestor, taught the world about the glory of G-d and serving Him. He said that by observing Shabbos publicly as a community, we were sharing the beauty of Shabbos with the world and inviting others to join us not only that week, but every week forever.
After services, I and hundreds of others left the sanctuary, and, instead of turning left toward Heritage Hall, we turned right and walked out the front door. Here the sun was shining brightly on about 30 round tables clothed in bright blue with challah rolls and covered trays of fish, condiments and desserts. Candies sprinkled generously on every table were grabbed up by children with wide eyes.
The trays were assembled on Thursday by BJ’s Kiddush committee (like others at many synagogues across Atlanta), a group of women who volunteer weekly to prepare for the usual Kiddushes. But this was no usual Kiddush.
For the Shabbat Block Party Kiddush Luncheon, the women prepared around 10 times as many trays.
Outside, Rabbi Ilan recited Kiddush, and I joined others in saying, “Amen.” Then I sat down with my young grandsons and a family I hardly knew. From buffet tables, people piled their plates with sushi, fried chicken wings, kugel and the warm cholent. Sponsors such as the Spicy Peach, Kosher Emporium, Chai Peking, Pita Palace and Fuego Mundo, as well as individuals and families, made the free luncheon possible.
After my children picked up their children, I moved around to other areas. A group of college students led by Rabbi Yaakov Fleshel of Meor at Emory sat at tables and enjoyed the food and camaraderie. Members of other synagogues on LaVista Road, including Ner Hamizrach, Netzach Yisrael, the New Toco Shul and Young Israel came by. I saw Rabbi Adam Starr from Young Israel conversing with Rabbi Ilan.
Ronda Robinson, a writer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who attends several synagogues, sat among some friends she hadn’t seen in a while. “It’s nice to be part of a celebration worldwide, especially in the face of what’s going on in Israel,” she said, “and feel like we’re supporting each other.”
Off to the side, Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, Beth Jacob’s rabbi emeritus, who was visiting from Israel, passed a football to some young boys. A few minutes later, Rabbi Ilan led a train of men singing zemiros (Shabbat songs) as they wove their way from one end of the parking lot to the other, picking up more singers along the way.
“I think that everyone was pleasantly surprised at how so many factors came together to make the event so enjoyable,” said Rabbi Yitzhak Tendler, who with Rabbi Binyamin Sloviter recently joined the staff of Beth Jacob to create new programming. Rabbi Tendler credited Sybil Goldstein, BJ’s event coordinator, and the other members of the staff with overseeing the outdoor Shabbat party.
The event was inspired by an article Rabbi Tendler read that described a block party in Los Angeles at which a large part of the Pico Robertson neighborhood was blocked off for 3,000 people who paid to celebrate Shabbat dinner together.
Rabbi Tendler estimated that 500 people attended the Toco Hills event. He saw the open celebration of Shabbat as a way to unify the different Orthodox groups in the area. “Shabbos is unique,” he said, “because it’s a central value that many different types of Jews can unify around.”
He added, “We share a lot more in common than we sometimes think.”