Free Shabbat dinners will resume this Friday night at Hillel Jewish University Center, following a temporary hiatus due to lack of funding.
The meals will continue throughout the remainder of this semester, at no cost to students, but a nominal fee will be charged starting next fall, Executive Director Aaron Weil said.
The Shabbat dinners, which attract between 225 and 250 students each week during the fall semester, and about 150 a week in the spring, had been funded primarily by donations from the Pittsburgh Jewish community. The cost to provide the meals is approximately $65,000 per year, not including staff time.
“It is singularly our most expensive program,” said Weil.
Due to the troubled economy, donations to Hillel have fallen, and the weekly meals were discontinued for two weeks in March. In response, the students mobilized, raising $15,000 through an online campaign to see them through the rest of the year.
Beginning this fall, students will be charged a small fee for the dinners, in the $6 range, although Weil stressed no one would be turned away because they cannot pay.
Charging for a Hillel Shabbat dinner is nothing new.
“Most Hillels have charged for Shabbat dinners,” said Rob Goldberg, vice president of Hillel International. “It varies with the type of Hillel and their culture.”
Goldberg said that the implementation of free Shabbat dinners by Hillel was partially in response to Chabad on Campus, which typically offers free Shabbat dinners to students.
“Hillel needed to remain competitive and smart,” Goldberg said.
Pittsburgh’s Hillel began providing free Shabbat dinners back in 2003, said Weil, as a way to help the students develop a sense of community.
That year, the dinners were held once a month, and served 34 students. As a result of an aggressive marketing campaign, the dinners quickly became popular and were expanding to weekly. Soon, more than 200 students were being served.
“The issue was never about the food,” said Weil. “The food was the hook that convened the community. If you take away the food, you take away the
He is concerned that charging a fee for the dinners will affect attendance, noting that other Hillels have seen 40 percent fewer participants once there is a charge for food. He is looking for ways to ensure that the regular convening of the community is maintained.
“What we’re looking to do is partnering with the students as part of the solution,” Weil said. “We want to incorporate their concerns as well as their desires as to how they want the community to convene.”
Approximately two-thirds of the students who attend the Shabbat dinners also attend services on Friday night at Hillel, Weil said. “One-third just comes for dinner.”
About 65 percent of those attending dinner are students at the University of Pittsburgh, 30 percent are from Carnegie Mellon University, and 5 percent are from other area universities.
Pitt has seen a “dramatic increase” in its Jewish population in the last six years, Weil said. Jewish students now comprise 13 percent of the campus, and are the largest ethnic minority at the school.
Hillel, both locally and nationally, has been hit hard by the current economic crisis, Weil said. Local programming has been “slashed by double digits.” Receiving only 12 percent of its budget from the United Jewish Federation, the organization must raise the remaining 88 percent on its own.
It is finding creative ways to cut back on costs, including having students help prepare the meals — rather than having the food come in fully catered — and set up and decorate the dining room
Some Hillels have responded to the funding cuts by offering free Shabbat dinners once a month, or by having a student committee prepare the entire meal itself, said Goldberg.
Another innovation, partially in response to the funding issue, is Shabbat in a Box. With this program, Hillel provides grape juice, challah, benschers, and $6 per guest to students willing to host a Shabbat dinner in their own home.
“The goal is not to replace our Friday night experience,” said Weil, “but once a month, students have the opportunity to choose a different Friday night experience. For most students who are doing this, this is the first time they have ever hosted a Friday night dinner.”
Weil said that the economic crisis also has provided the students the opportunity to open a discussion among themselves as to their “rights” — to a free Shabbat meal, for example — versus their responsibilities, and the role they must assume in maintaining their own Jewishness.
“I think it’s an exciting time,” Weil said, “but like anything, change is hard.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)