Some of the most vivid Jewish memories from my childhood took place in the social hall of Lower Merion Synagogue.
Every week, after we sang the final notes of “Adon Olam” to conclude the service, a communal ritual was set in motion: From his seat on the bimah, Rabbi Levene would raise a Kiddush cup and recite the blessing on wine. Next, Mrs. Borck and Mr. Feldman would open the partition between the sanctuary and the social hall. And then: Whoosh! A rush of people would sprint from their seats, crowding at the tables for a piece of herring, a cookie, or cubes of savory noodle kugel, all pre-poked with toothpicks and arranged on plastic plates by the “Kiddush ladies”—volunteers who arrived early Saturday morning for preliminary preparations and then slipped out of the service to organize the last few details just before the partition opened.
Kiddush was a sweet and lovely chaos: Little ones toddling around, their parents secure in the knowledge that another adult would prevent them from leaving the room; older children playing ball in the parking lot while their parents socialized. Kiddush was when my brothers and I would sneak cups of soda, which we were never allowed to have at home. It was when last-minute plans were made for Shabbat lunch or an afternoon playdate, and when my mother would take waaaaaay too long talking to all her friends and I’d have to drag her away so we could go home and eat.
The first Shabbat community I joined as a young adult had its own Kiddush culture and rituals. When the service ended, we would all stack our chairs, help set up tables, and bring out the food that had been lovingly plated by our own “Kiddush guy,” Doug Loring. Volunteers would fan out to six designated “zones” of the room, each tasked with identifying and welcoming new people. At the scotch table, the rule was that you could not take a drink until you had introduced yourself to someone you didn’t know.
When I moved to Brooklyn years later, the minyan I attended had a similar grassroots feel, with volunteers shopping and setting up for Kiddush each Shabbat. Because this was Park Slope, there was also a compost committee, dedicated to collecting all the food waste from the Kiddush and bringing it to a local community garden to be composted. (Shocker: I soon became the committee’s chair.)
It’s easy to dismiss Kiddush as a mere appendage to services, to joke about the dry cookies or the scramble at the buffet line. Perhaps you’re even wondering why it’s a topic worthy of attention in a Toward Shabbat column! I’ve chosen to muse about it here because my experience has taught me that Kiddush can be one of the most important expressions of a synagogue community’s values and spiritual commitments outside of prayer. The food that is served, and the way it is served; the interactions between children and adults, and between old-timers and new faces; the degree to which volunteers are involved in making it happen—all of these facets, and more, communicate volumes about an institution’s culture.
Codifying the prophet Isaiah’s proclamation to “Call the Sabbath a delight, and the Lord’s sacred day an honor” (Isaiah 58:13), Maimonides provides instruction to individuals about how to make Shabbat a day of honor (kavod) and delight (oneg) through one’s clothing, food, and the atmosphere in the home (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shabbat 30:1). Kiddush is one way we can fulfill this holy vision in the context of the synagogue.
Recently we’ve brought back a temporary version of our community Kiddush after pausing it because of the pandemic. During this interim stage, we are taking the opportunity to intentionally reflect on how Kiddush can be transformed to bring greater kavod and oneg to this aspect of Shabbat, and to better express the values of our community.
So now I invite you to join in this process:
What makes Kiddush an honor and a delight for you? What values would you like to see expressed in our community Kiddush? And how might you like to give of yourself to make that happen? Write me here with your input! Let’s build Kiddush back together to create something truly special—a communal ritual that will be the foundation of Jewish memories for decades to come.