Food served at Altshul events (e.g., Kiddush and community picnics) must be prepared in a kosher or strictly vegetarian kitchen and must not be cooked or purchased on Shabbat. All purchased food must be hechshered, including cheese, grape juice and wine-vinegar. Altshul-organized meals (e.g., hosted Shabbat dinners and lunches) that are served in individual homes may vary depending on personal observance, however, meals served in a non-kosher home must be vegetarian. All Altshul-organized meal participants are given an option to specify their needs.
Shabbat Shalom. This week’s parsha, Vayera, starts out with one of the Torah’s most lovely and selfless acts of hospitality. Three unknown guests arrive at Abraham and Sarah’s tent to inform them that Sarah will have a son by the following year. Instead of turning these strangers away and chastising them for visiting at an inopportune time, Abraham immediately gets up to greet them saying: “Let some water be brought and wash your feet, and recline beneath the tree. I will fetch a morsel of bread that you may sustain yourselves…” He and Sarah then go on to prepare a lavish meal for their guests – solidifying their ongoing reputation as the Torah’s entertaining all stars. Abraham and Sarah’s spirit of unconditional welcoming serves as a model for me in my own life, and I think it also guides Altshuls values of hospitality and efforts to make our communal space welcoming and comfortable for everyone who visits. On that note, let me switch gears just a bit.
Every so often at Altshul, we devote a Saturday morning dvar Torah slot to discuss at greater length something that is happening in our community as a whole – and today is one of those days. 🙂 Over the last several months, the Altshul Steering Committee has worked together with the Shamashim to craft a kashrut policy that will guide members in their food shopping and cooking for Altshul events. I’m going to share that new policy this morning – to “officially introduce” it here at Altshul – but before I get there, I wanted to discuss for a minute why we even have a kashrut policy in the first place? It’s kind of a strange notion, when you think about it. Outside of the observant Jewish world, very few groups would feel an need to formally define which foods could and could not be brought to a potluck. But within a Jewish community – and especially one as diverse in background and as committed to pluralism as ours – setting clear and inclusive food boundaries is crucial. Of course pluralism can be tricky, especially when it comes to eating. One the one hand, food is both simple and profound in its ability to connect people to one another. A good meal provides us with both the setting and the occasion to slow down and enjoy ourselves in the company of the people we love. At Althsul, we are fortunate enough to have many opportunities to share food – through our kiddush (and l’chaims!) on Saturday mornings; through hosted Shabbat dinners, Lunch & Learns and potluck picnics in the park; and through signing up with the lifecycle committee to prepare a meal for another family. And while we might not think about it consciously, in a real sense, the overall strength and health of our community surely stems as much from these shared food moments, as from our davenning and learning together. Still, the actual, everyday lived-practice of kashrut can be a challenge for a community like ours. Without proper forethought and communication, it can create moments of discomfort – like when someone accidentally shows up to a kosher barbecue with a chocolate cream pie. In more extreme cases, these instances of kashrut discrepancy can leave people feeling alienated from their friends and family.
In the past, Altshul’s kashrut policy mandated that all food brought to Altshul events had to be either “hekhshered or prepared in a kosher or strictly vegetarian kitchen.” That’s not a bad start. Over the last five years, this policy has helped us ensure that the largest number of people possible can feel comfortable eating at an Altshul event, regardless of where they fall on the religious spectrum. Still, the current policy is missing something important. It falls into the “highest common denominator” category, which is very common in pluralistically-minded settings, and which sets the strictest level of observance as the community standard. Unfortunately while everyone may feel comfortable eating within these guidelines, they do not leave room for all members to actively participate – as cooks or hosts – in Altshul-related events. Through member feedback shared with the shamashim and via last year’s community survey, it became clear that Althsul’s kashrut policy, as it stands, did not adequately reflect the needs of our membership. Taking this community feedback into consideration, the Steering Committee lengthened and re-shaped the policy to better reflect our community’s needs and practices. The aim of this new policy is to make Altshul’s collective table as inviting as possible, while honoring traditional kashrut…and to make all members feel comfortable as guests as well as hosts. So, to connect briefly back today’s parsha, my blessing for all of us is that we find more opportunities to honor Abraham and Sarah’s model of inclusive, unconditional hospitality – both in our own lives and as a community.