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Friday, September 19, 2014

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The ever-changing face of Shabbat dinners

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Left: Pollock with her paternal grandfather, Misha Pollock from Montreal, Right: Her maternal grandfather, Leslie Wise, who passed away in 2008.

One of the finest traditions of the Jewish religion is the weekly custom of Shabbat dinner.

The beauty of Shabbat rests in its consistency to bring families and friends together, apart from the stress, pressure and unpredictability of everyday life. Above all, Shabbat dinners exist as a reminder to separate trivial matters from what is truly important.

I grew up devoted to Shabbat dinners. Every week, I eagerly anticipated the comfort of being among my immediate family in either Toronto or Montreal. The location of the weekly gathering was insignificant, as long as familiar faces were discernible.

My concept of Shabbat has evolved and changed over the past few years. Three years ago, my maternal grandfather passed away.

Shabbat for me then changed dramatically. His seat at the head of the table is now vacant, and his soothing voice chanting the weekly prayers is absent. However, the invaluable lessons and knowledge he bestowed upon my family is what I miss the most.

Until you endure the profound loss of a grandparent, it is difficult to truly recognize and appreciate his or her remarkable wisdom.

When I was feeling a heavy void from the loss of my grandfather, the Shabbaton program at my high school, the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, successfully revived my spirits.

I was given the opportunity to experience Shabbat with my closest friends in an organic and spiritual atmosphere. I began to cherish the opportunity of spending Shabbat with non-family members, who eagerly introduced me to new and fascinating Shabbat rituals.

Thus, the meaning of Shabbat deepened for me yet again, and I began to embrace the practice of spending Shabbat with other like-minded young adults, irrespective of our various backgrounds.

Graduating from the comfort of my high school to the University of Western Ontario (UWO) in London, Ont., was challenging.

In addition to being distanced from my family and our Shabbat traditions, I, too, left behind the familiarity of Shabbaton retreats.

Thankfully, Hillel at UWO works tirelessly to encourage Jewish students to continue participating in Shabbat dinners.

This past month, Hannah Gofman, Arielle Kaplan and Emma Leese, three Hillel members and students, organized the Shabbat Across London program.

The goal of the program was to conduct numerous Shabbat dinners among Jewish students in London in order to keep alive the tradition of Shabbat.

Groups or individuals signed up to host dinners, and were supplemented with Shabbat candles, two loaves of challah, a bottle of Manischewitz wine and a specially designed prayer book.

Thanks to Hillel, Birthright Israel and private donations from various Jewish camps, 21 hosts opened their homes to about 350 students.

Shabbat Across London was immensely successful in its ability to appeal to Jewish students of all denominations and backgrounds with the shared objective of celebrating Shabbat.

Similar to my experience on Shabbatons, I found my idea of Shabbat again shifted with a newfound reverence among my fellow Jewish students in London.

My latest modification of Shabbat is rather fresh. In my last column, I wrote about my intention to volunteer in Florida during my family winter vacation.

Unfortunately, this vacation never came to fruition. Receiving the dreadful call that my paternal grandfather in Montreal required emergency surgery resulted in my family immediately terminating our visit.

The endless hours spent in the hospital during my weeklong stay in Montreal were exhausting.

Nevertheless, once Friday evening came, it seemed only natural to congregate at my grandparents’ home for Shabbat dinner. Though that dinner seemed somewhat quiet and far less vibrant than usual, I believe it was the mysterious and mystical power of Shabbat that was able to keep my family calm and optimistic and thus soon welcome a successful outcome.

I will forever be grateful that in the face of happiness, success and even loss and tragedy, Shabbat dinners will always remain a constant time of rest and reflection.

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