Push Boundaries and Welcome the Stranger

I was honoured at this past Friday night to have a future school board trustee, future city councillor and perhaps even a future Prime Minister at my New Sabbath table. This future leader is only 15 and her decision is a recent one. I could however appreciate her optimism and her sincerity. Perhaps more interesting and telling about potential leadership was that she agreed to come to our New Sabbath dinner in the first place – it’s not exactly the way most 15 year olds I’ve known choose to spend their Friday nights. We have had young people at our table in the past – but usually they are with their parents and are not here on their own accord. This teen (and her 15 year old counterpart) took a chance – on the suggestion of another new guest at our table — who contacted us through our blog — a social innovator who works with youth in the Parkdale neighbourhood in Toronto through mentorship and the arts — and who wanted to “sample” a New Sabbath Project.

I’d be lying to say we weren’t somewhat apprehensive about welcoming guests had never met before into our home. It’s not something we’d considered when we thought about expanding our Sabbath of “togetherness” to loosely borrow from the book by Pinchas H. Peli and his 1988 book called Shabbat Shalom: A renewed Encounter With the Sabbath. Most new guests come via some older and more well-established guests. Clearly, they didn’t know what to expect either. The religious and cultural diversity was not unlike so many other New Sabbaths we’ve held but the dynamic of having three complete strangers with no obvious connection to any of them was a wonderful exercise in stretching our comfort zone – particularly in a society that preaches over and over to fear the stranger.

Comments both during and since Friday tell me it was a boundary worth stretching. Our guest who initiated initial contact told us he expected more formality and more flash. He was surprised to learn it was little more than dinner in our home with some blessings. In response, I told him since deciding to take what we do “public” as it were — based on what we saw as a crisis in both citizenship and community — we wondered about whether to introduce things that made it more formal. We are still not entirely sure if we should be introducing more structural elements into it but I think the whole point is that if you create a formal atmosphere with bells and whistles and great expectations, it might bring more self-conciousness into what has naturally evolved into what is otherwise an intimate gathering place — even a salon as one guest from last Friday labelled it in his note to us afterwards. What we feel is most important is ensuring it is not just another dinner party full of small talk — but instead a place for bigger conversation (most of the time – kids usually in bed), some cultural and spiritual rituals, and simply making sure you do it regularly. It then becomes more than an occasional dinner party but a disciplined and ritualized way of creating a bit of a fence around the sacred – something that many feel missing in our secular, highly consumerist society.

Perhaps most telling is that another first time guest told us that night how blessed he felt taking part in such rituals – this “salon” as he called it — having grown up in an Athiest home with no cultural or spiritual practice – and thus no anchor. And our teenage guests? Well, by the time they looked at the time, they were amazed it was already 11 PM. They thought it was only nine.

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