On a recent Friday evening in Jerusalem, more than a dozen participants from a Chinese business delegation snapped photos of each other waiting outside a house in Nachlaot, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood best known for the famed Machane Yehuda outdoor food market. At this hour, the market was shuttered and empty, and various renditions of the kiddush could be heard coming from the densely populated hodgepodge of newly renovated and dilapidated apartments stacked along the area’s winding alleyways.
Upon entering the home of the Orthodox, shomer-shabbat Cohen family, the Chinese visitors pocketed their mobile phones and cameras. As the guests filed in, they handed hostess Michelle Cohen gifts, including swaths of silk fabric, teas, and wall tapestries from China, as well as bottles of wine from Israel. Inside, two long tables, arranged in an L shape, were set for more than 20, and Sabbath candles glowed on a high shelf, out of reach of the children. Bookcases bursting with religious texts, framed family photographs, and extra sets of kiddush cups covered one wall.
It was time for dinner.
Most of the visitors had never heard of Shabbat dinner until they arrived the previous week for a 10-day tour of Israel, mainly focused on making connections in the country’s growing high-tech sector. But they were eager to soak up every drop of the experience, hoping it would add to their understanding of Israeli and Jewish culture, which they saw as key to figuring out how such a small country could make a name for itself globally in the industry.
“We really want to learn more about the culture, also the religious customs, and see how children are raised,” said Stephanie Lee, one of the Chinese guests and also founder of Beijing Zion Shalom Cultural Development Co., which seeks to match Chinese investors with Israeli high-tech startups.
This meal was organized through Shabbat of a Lifetime, a company the Cohens founded in 2011 to provide Sabbath meal experiences for predominantly non-Jewish tourists in the homes of traditionally observant Jerusalemites. Michelle Cohen would not disclose the price, saying it often depends on what deal they work out with the tour companies that send them most of their guests, but she did tell me that it’s “equivalent to the cost of a Shabbat meal in a hotel.” This fast-growing company has served 20,000 tourists and employs a network of about 60 hosting families all over the city. And Shabbat of a Lifetime is not alone; a handful of other businesses have popped up based on the same concept: charging tourists—mostly non-Jews—for Shabbat meals in Jerusalem homes.
Some of these businesses show up on the popular travel site TripAdvisor, with prices and reviews. Clients are more often referred by tour operators than by rabbis or synagogue presidents. Unlike programs offering tourists meals in locals’ homes that have been set up by synagogue hospitality committees or Jerusalem’s ubiquitous nonprofit Jewish educational organizations, these companies do not aim to provide charity, reduce intermarriage, or convince fellow Jews to start keeping Shabbat. And unlike foodie-friendly in-home dining sites like EatWith, the main point isn’t to create a meal that’s focused primarily on curated menus and personal chefs. Instead, their goal is to introduce Jewish and Israeli culture and customs to foreign visitors.
“It’s a cultural encounter,” Cohen said. “Just like tourists in Israel go to a Bedouin tent, they can go to us. But with us, it’s an authentic experience. We don’t get in our cars at the end of the evening and drive home like the Bedouins do.”
The Cohens first got the idea for Shabbat of a Lifetime while in India, where they worked in 2009 as Jewish educators. As they traveled all over the country with their two young children, it was not stunning architecture or bustling markets that impressed Michelle most; rather, it was staying for a few days in the home of an Indian family. “The thing that stuck out most was just being with a family, staying in their home,” she said. “It was more memorable than the Taj Mahal.”
Visitors to Israel have grown more diverse in recent years. While roughly half the tourists in the early 2000s were Jewish, according to government estimates, by 2014 Jews accounted for just 24 percent of overall tourism while Christians accounted for 56 percent. Tourism from China in particular has boomed, growing 80 percent since 2013, according to the Israel Ministry of Tourism; in 2015, some 45,000 Chinese tourists visited Israel.
When the Cohens returned to Israel after their stint in India, Michelle’s husband Natanel, who is a tour guide, noticed that the growing number of non-Jewish visitors had few opportunities to interact with locals, so the couple decided to start charging groups to eat Shabbat dinner with them and soon had a list of groups lined up. The demand was so high that the Cohens started sending groups to other homes and hired help to prepare the homemade food. They said it was important to found Shabbat of a Lifetime as a for-profit company so they would not have to rely on donors or pander to any agendas, something they had seen the constraints of in their careers as Jewish educators. The concept does not violate the Sabbath because the food is cooked and all payments are received before the sun sets on Friday, the Cohens said.
“The whole concept that people come together for a family meal, and that Jerusalem gets all quiet on a Friday night, is just wild for visitors,” said Todd Horton, one of the first tour operators to bring a group, composed mainly of American Protestants, to the Cohens’ home. “That whole mindset of resting for a day in the U.S. has been lost, and people come here and see, wow, Jews really rest. It’s really a moment of cultural experience.”
As the guests from the Chinese business delegation settled into their chairs at the Cohens’ table, Natanel, with the confidence of an experienced educator and enthusiasm of a tour guide, taught them a tune to hum for “Shalom Aleichem,” while he and his family sang the four verses that welcome (and then eventually bid farewell to) the Sabbath angels. The group hummed along, as if attentive students in a music class, reading a Mandarin translation in booklets provided by Shabbat of a Lifetime.
As Natanel sang “Eshet Chayil”—“A Woman of Valor,” a song of praise traditionally sung to the woman of the house before Shabbat dinner—while looking Michelle in the eyes, the visitors were silent, then applauded when Natanel concluded the serenade, whose words come from the Book of Proverbs. Before each ritual and song of the evening, Natanel gave a brief explanation. He focused on the history and culture of the Jewish people, rather than on the fine points of the Orthodox halakha he follows. A translator echoed his narration, one sentence at a time.
A few disruptions and clumsy cultural encounters kept the evening feeling feeling somewhat spontaneous: When Natanel asked his preteen daughter if she would like to join him in singing “Eshet Chayil,” she rolled her eyes and scampered away from the table. After Natanel recited kiddush and sipped his wine, the Chinese visitors were still holding their full cups of wine, as if waiting for a toast from their host—a required ritual in China before sipping wine. When Natanel told them to drink, they got up and clinked his glass, then finally drank the wine.
Upon watching Natanel use a cup to pour water over each hand as part of the netilat yadaim hand-washing ritual before eating, the Chinese delegation, unexpectedly, without any instruction, lined up at the sink and did the same thing. “At moments like that, I just step back,” Natanel told me later. “I am not interested in teaching non-Jews how to do netilat yadaim, and I would never teach them the bracha. They don’t need to learn the bracha.”
Across Jerusalem, in East Talpiot, a former ground coordinator in Israel’s tourism sector named Danby Meital opened up a Shabbat hospitality business last year. She, too, wanted to tap into the growing diversity of visitors to Israel.
“I have always been a big entertainer,” said Meital, who immigrated to Israel from the United States 40 years ago and was among the founders of Moreshet Avraham, one of Jerusalem’s few Conservative synagogues. “I thought it was a nice way to earn money.”
Held in her home, Meital’s “Jerusalem Friday Night Shabbat Experience” can seat up to 45 people and costs between $25 and $50 a person, depending on the menu. Like Shabbat of a Lifetime, she narrates each ritual. “Before they get a chance to ask, we usually explain,” she said.
Meital invites guests to attend Friday night service at the nearby Conservative synagogue and tailors the evenings in other ways, such as inviting her relatives or friends with children if some of her paying clients will attend with children. “I try to make them feel comfortable,” she said. Most often her guests, who have included everyone from Evangelical Christians to Chinese graduate students, just want to see inside an Israeli home.
In the village-like Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor, yet another Shabbat-dinner-for-tourists business is thriving, only this one is less structured and is held in a less religious home. Ruth Yudekovitz charges $100 for a four-course meal with wine at the distressed wooden table in her kitchen, surrounded by art from around the world. Friday night guests watch her light Shabbat candles and hear the tunes from the prayers in the tiny Ashkenazi synagogue tucked underneath her 100-year-old Ottoman-era house.
Yudekovitz doesn’t keep the Sabbath in the technical ways that the hosts of Shabbat of a Lifetime and Meital do, but she always has Friday night dinner with her family. Unlike other operators, she does not have a set program of explaining each ritual. “My thing is to just let people discover,” told me on a recent Thursday morning, as she stirred a pot of zucchini-apple soup for the next evening’s government delegation from Massachusetts. If the evening is too planned, or too narrated, she said, it would not feel authentic. “People who are traveling are looking for experiences, people don’t want to just look at sites,” she said. “And what closer experience is there than eating in someone’s home? It’s like a native experience.”
All of the operators said that they also have some Jewish guests, although that was not their target audience. Often these are Jewish groups who want the cultural experience of an Orthodox-style Shabbat without specific religious pressure.
“It’s a surprise to us to have Jews because that’s isn’t what we set out to do,” Michelle Cohen said.
Natanel Cohen said hosting Jews is a very different experience, “because we feel something tribal.” Such a feeling was not present with the Chinese: “I actually find it hard to connect with them, partly because of the language barrier,” he said.
Lee, one of the few members of the Chinese delegation at the Cohens’ house who spoke English, said that even if deep personal connections do not develop, just watching another culture in action is a valuable experience. “We think we can learn a lot from the Jewish people,” she said, “from their culture, from their Talmud, about how they think, and how they succeed in science and technology.”
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