If there is no such thing as a free lunch, does the same hold true for a free Shabbat dinner?
Students at the Hillel Jewish University Center have answered this question in the affirmative, and have been hard at work the last few weeks, taking on the responsibility of raising money to bring back their weekly cost-free Friday night dinners.
“This is not a handout,” said Aaron Weil, executive director of Hillel JUC. “The students are taking on the responsibility for making this a vibrant community.”
When funding ran out for the free dinners last year, and Hillel JUC started charging students $6 and requiring reservations, there was about a 70 percent drop in attendance, Weil said.
Once students stopped coming to Friday night dinners, other Jewish enterprises on campus felt the effect. Birthright applications were down, Weil said, as was involvement in Israel activism, and attendance at other Hillel functions.
“When Shabbat attendance contracted,” Weil said, “everything else did, too.”
Once students saw the domino effect that charging for Shabbat dinners had on the rest of their community, they took action
Carnegie Mellon University junior Max Hutchinson, of Mt. Lebanon, spearheaded the effort, meeting with a private donor, and securing a commitment for a $37,000 grant — half the amount needed to fund dinners throughout 2010 — conditioned on Hillel raising the same amount in 90 days.
Hutchinson, who is president of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity and a member of the advisory board of Hillel on his campus, then met with other student leaders at both CMU and the University of Pittsburgh. The group decided it would commit to raising another $20,000 on its own.
“Free Shabbos meals are really the unifying Jewish event on campus,” Hutchinson said. “Everyone involved in Jewish life on campus goes to Shabbos meals. It is so clear to us that this is the big thing, that this is where our efforts should be.”
Their efforts are seeing success.
Weil said donors have stepped forward with funds now that they understand that “the dinner program was never about the food, but about the community.”
“People were uncomfortable that students were challenged by having to pay $6 for Shabbat dinners. But now, they understand it’s about the community,” he said.
He also noted that a recent story in The Chronicle about Hillel’s lack of funds for the dinners helped inform people as to the importance of the Friday night event.
Weil said he believes the decline in attendance after initiating a fee was “a human phenomenon” that occurs in many situations in which people are asked to pay for something that they had previously received free of charge.
Last Friday, Hillel hosted a “no fee” dinner, which drew about 150 students. Only 40 students attended the previous week when they were required to pay the $6 fee.
“The issue never was ‘are the kids hungry?’ ” Weil said. “Yeah, they’re hungry, but they’re hungry for a sense of community. The meal is just the thing that opens the door. It’s the cheese.”
Now that potential donors have gotten the message, “the response has been terrific,” Weil said. “People have been coming in with donations for the last few weeks. If the last three weeks are any indication, I feel confident that we’re going to reach this challenge.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 412-687-1000, Est. 316.)