Who We Are

Breaking Bread and Building Community -- One Dinner at a Time

Both Ralph Benmergui and Cortney Pasternak have spent many years connecting and communicating with people across the country and around the world.

Ralph has spent his professional life in the public eye — as a performer, as well as an award-winning current affairs journalist and documentary-maker.

Cortney worked many years as a news journalist and documentary producer across the country and internationally. She also teaches journalism at the college and university level.

Ralph has two adult children and together with Cortney, two small children. The couple lives with their family in Toronto and they continue to work as communication professionals — always looking forward to their Friday night, Sabbath dinner roundtables for rest, renewal and delight.

Welcome Message from Ralph

For me, the seeds of this project were sown as I sat in the back of a production van on the way to a TV shoot on Cortes Island B.C. We were in the middle of production for a Gemini-nominated but predictably short-lived series called 5Seekers. We were taking 5 Canadians on a continental journey to find their spiritual path. As we wound our way through the cathedral pines of the pacific northwest, the sky a gun metal grey receding in our rear view mirror I looked through my notes to remind myself of where and who we were going to meet.

Turns out there was a woman, a resident of Cortes, who every Friday night invited any and all who wanted to join her for a Sabbath dinner. My assumption upon hearing about her was that she, like me, was Jewish. Why else would she pick Friday for a Sabbath meal? I was wrong. She wasn’t Jewish. In fact her home was filled with what amounted to the stations of the cross, except that each shrine she had constructed reflected a different religious or spiritual belief. Her home was a true spiritual buffet.
The meal she served was simple but the impact of that evening was powerful for me.

When I returned home I told my wife all about the trip — how we started in Sedona Arizona the new age capital of the world and ended in Cortes where the incredible Hollyhock Retreat is found. Our “Seekers”, well they went though a lot. Whether or not they found lasting transformation, I think that was frankly a bit too much to ask, of us and them.

Me, I have always felt comfortable in my faith but the Sabbath trip had rekindled memories of Friday nights with family and the fundamental sabbatical ideal that for six days we do and for the one day of the Sabbath we are allowed to just be. To unplug and restore. A profoundly green principle.
Since then our home has been a gathering place on most Friday evenings for friends, new and old, for ideas contentious and comforting, good simple food and yes a fair bit of wine. But this is not just a dinner party, though the table is home to everyone from atheists to those of devout faith.
We start each meal lighting candles, then we go around the table blessing whoever and whatever those who have gathered see fit. After we toast each other and bless the homemade bread my wife has baked, much eating and conversation ensues. The simple act of soliciting a blessing from all who have gathered brings each participant in to focus for themselves and those around them. They could be blessing a child away at school, an ailing mother or simply their love for their partner sitting beside them and being honoured. As Leonard Cohen says you must build a fence around the sacred if you want to protect and nurture it in your life. Our New Sabbath Project is a step in that direction.

Now it’s time to tale this pluralistic, inclusive Sabbath project one step further. We want to incorporate the ideals of community, culture and a renewed citizenship into this event and share what comes from them with you. This blog-site is an opportunity for us and you to create connections that leapfrog the narrow conversation that dominates so much of our discourse and break through the isolation that modern life imposes.

We want to share ideas, links, even the simple recipes that make our gathering easy to create and filled with the voices that make us all richer.
We encourage you to begin your own Sabbath projects, not to the exclusion of those who share neither your cultural or spiritual background but in fact quite the opposite, we want to build bridges that allow us all to share in this journey together.

Welcome Message from Cortney

If someone would have told me just a few years ago that I would be participating – and more– promoting – something that even contained the word “Sabbath”, I wouldn’t have believed them.

I grew up in a home with a spiritual, convert mother who embraced several faiths but in particular that which was animistic together with an Athiest Jewish father. Celebrating the Sabbath was just not something we ever did at home. That kind of thing was for the “religious” types. In fact, all holiday traditions were eventually marred by divorce, family feuds and all that stems from such familial breakdowns. That’s not to say I didn’t miss the traditions that were once in place – the smell of certain dishes, the company of close relatives.
Later on, a transient, journalistic career didn’t exactly lend itself to a life of rest, reflection or spirituality – to say nothing of establishing roots where rituals and traditions are easily established .

The birth of our Friday night dinners was kind of organic really. I remember Ralph coming home from filming his documentary to tell me of this most amazing woman from Cortes Island who held multi-faith “Shabbat” dinners. No, she wasn’t Jewish and the meal was nothing fancy – just an authentic, community-building exercise that brought members of her community closer together once a week – to establish that often elusive personal contact — get to know one another and talk about things that mattered.

I loved the idea in theory. At that time, Ralph and I had a very young son and we were hardly getting out. As simply a way to reintroduce a social life, we decided to try this out with some adjustments. For instance, we kept some culturally relevant traditions but also introduced for lack of a better word – “blessings” around the table. Perhaps they are better described as outward moments of reflection/thanks/acknowledgements – bad or good – around the table. I admit that the idea of “blessings” — even non-religious ones — made me quite uncomfortable for some time. Such moments of reflection – particularly among a group of people I didn’t necessarily know too well — wasn’t even close to anything I came from – yet the impact on our guests – the way it opened them up – drove away ego — often revealing vulnerabilities – each to the other — was profound and immediate — every time. The short, cultural, non-english, singing blessing of the bread, wine and candles seemed easy in comparison. But our round the table blessings/acknowledgements/whatever people wanted to call them – brought a group – often of strangers – together in a very intimate way – often opening the flood gates to dynamic, passionate, sometimes volatile conversations about life, love, religion, politics, community, society and more – issues that are often dangerous to discuss at a dinner table. Those “blessings” however – set a tone – helping to encourage friends – new and old — however passionate, to be more likely to listen, and learn from one another.

To me, it felt a bit like an open, equal voice salon concept, with everyone from neighbours mixed with family mixed with people we’d met once or twice or hardly knew or met through work or reconnected with online. People who would never normally come together – from all walks of life. Strangers were no longer strangers – and we have been told over and over again – that our many many guests over the years – have felt richer because of it. These just weren’t your average dinner parties – and everyone felt included. We have always made our Friday nights an open door event. People are invited, but others often come last minute. We’re touched to know they feel they can. Perhaps the biggest sign of its success is when we hosted a New Years’ Eve dinner last year. It happened to fall on a Friday night and while we had no intention of bringing the “Sabbath” (and by this I use a traditional word to refer to a time of rest, reflection and togetherness) into the conversation, every person at the table insisted we do our individual “blessing” anyway.

So, why think about expanding this community-building exercise? Several reasons: One, the more I talk to people about it, the more they want in. A friend of mine recently said “I have everything I could want but still feel something is missing – something spiritual.” Regardless of what you call it, so many people are feeling “something” is missing – and so many people want that personal connection but don’t know how or where to find it. It takes me back to my husband’s show called 5Seekers – which as I said, is where it all began. Hundreds of Canadians – from the ordinary to the extraordinary — from all across the country – applied to come on the show – desperate to find that ever-elusive, missing piece to their life puzzle. Perhaps simplistic to think a TV show could solve the problem, but the application process and the show itself illustrated a profound thirst for something more than a consumer-oriented, individualistic culture that often leaves us feeling very disconnected from each other. I recently pitched the idea of bringing a non-religious, multi-faith, cross-cultural “Sabbath” type project to an organization that helps families in need. Organizers loved the idea, telling me that the parents they deal with often talk about feeling isolated – where neighbours, rarely stop to talk to one another let alone pitch in to create a communal dinner with some cultural or spiritual element. They were afraid of the name – connoting something “religious” and perhaps Judeo-Christian (as was I) – but in theory – they loved it.

My recent experience in the political arena was quite a wake-up call as well. I was heartened by some of the incredible people I met and worked with – people who were generous with time, money and support and who came out with no expectations – only a care and concern for our common future and common humanity. However, I was also amazed by how few people cared to connect – by how many people were suspicious about my intentions – furious I seemed unable to solve their personal problems. They wanted solutions without personal investment.

The New Sabbath Project is part of my investment. It’s a way to pay it forward on a community level, a cultural level and yes, a spiritual level. I’m paying it forward and thanking that woman from Cortes Island for passing it on to my husband who passed it on to me. Help us expand on our many many different groups that have formed in our dining room. Also, help us move the conversations beyond our own dining room. Help us generate new ideas, create friends and community – joined by our common humanity — from isolated neighbours. Help us create new, meaningful Friday night dinners in homes everywhere.

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One thought on “Who We Are

  1. What a lovely gift. To want to share this beyond the walls of your home. This is food for thought. I believe I may do this in the new year!

    I love bringing people into my home, love to gather around food and drink, love to have them linger. I will be settling into some new work as well as a new class, but once I get familiar with my new routine, I would like to experiment with this.

    Ralph, you and I have met a few times over the years. I performed in a small comedy theatre on Queen West in the early 90’s, you guested as ‘celebrity phaser bait’ in one of our Star Trek shows. We worked with Anton Leo on our own CBC radio show for a couple of years. I am impressed that you both have decided to share something that is in some ways intimate. I look forward to following the progress of this blog. Thanks for the inspiration!