It’s Friday night in the Mission District, and 30 people are sitting around the table in a San Francisco Victorian home outfitted as an event space. After the ritual blessings over the candles, wine and challah, the group digs into a meal prepared by a professional chef, and then quickly the diners get immersed in conversation.
These aren’t casual social exchanges, however — they are facilitated discussions on contemporary topics that are chosen in advance, with an expert on the issue serving as moderator. Relevant readings are sent to participants ahead of time to elevate the conversations.
On this night the topic is education. At one end of the table, a facilitator asks what people think about school uniforms. Another group discusses what’s known in the educational field as “the summer slide,” when a student backslides in reading skills because her family has no books at home or her parents do not take her to the library.
For Pride Month, the topic was the gender spectrum. Others have included immigration and deportations, and gender inequality in the workplace. A social justice seder included African Americans, Muslims, Latinos and Jews all talking about modern-day slavery and emancipation. On Sept. 14, the topic will be homelessness, and on Oct. 19 it will be the midterm elections.
These Shabbat dinner salons are called Shalon, a concept developed by Annette Blum, 39. The idea started percolating back in November 2016.
“The day after the election, I had this feeling of disappointment and sadness that made me want to do something,” she said. “Instead of wallowing in it, I thought, ‘If I’m going to eat anyway, I might as well eat with other people and it might as well be really good food.’”
She was further inspired at a breakfast sponsored by the Tipping Point Community, a San Francisco nonprofit working on issues around inequality. After hearing a presentation by recipients of grants from a local nonprofit called the Mission Asset Fund, Blum decided to invite some of the speakers to her first event.
A friend of Blum’s hosted it in her loft, a chef she knew helped with the cooking, and 24 people showed up. It was “really powerful,” said Blum. “I was so incredibly energized that I couldn’t wait to do more.”
A Shabbat dinner where important conversations are on the menu is a natural for Blum, who grew up in a Jewish home in Denver and has always enjoyed bringing people together. The attendees are a balanced mix of Jews and non-Jews.
“There’s so much learning that happens among a more diverse community,” she said. “The more research and education we have on these issues from people of diverse backgrounds, the more we’ll have an impact on our community.”
Blum tells the group each time that she is hoping for productive discussion. “I don’t want this to turn into a bitch-fest about what we can’t control,” she said. “The conversations should revolve around what we can do to make a difference.”
So far she has put together about 10 Shalons (shalon.info). While attendees pay in advance for their seat through her website, all monies collected go to the meal, the rental space and the chef.
Blum said she hopes people will leave inspired, with new ideas about how to engage in issues that matter to them. But if someone happens to make a new friend or business contact, that’s great, too. It is just as much a networking space.
Shabbat is how Blum connects to her culture, and she said it’s something everyone can appreciate.
“The concept of Shabbat is so universal. It’s about being able to disconnect from your work and all these other hassles to focus on the people around you and the food in front of you and the topic at hand,” she said. “I want to provide a relaxed environment where people are learning, as well as where they can get away from everything for a couple hours.”
While new people are always welcome, she is developing a cadre of regulars, too. One is Joe Adkins, who is community service chair of the Rotary Club of San Francisco and frequently participates in events with the San Francisco Interfaith Council.
“Shalon seamlessly blends a fun dinner party with a fascinating and topical seminar with multiple experts on the subject,” he said. “The evening always feels like it could last for hours more.”
Though Adkins is not Jewish, he said that “the fact that Shalon is a Shabbat dinner only adds to the magic of the evening. I learn something new and interesting about the Jewish faith at each Shalon, and I am also reminded that we are all one common people hoping for a better world, no matter how different we are, or how differently we go about achieving that progress may be.”