Friday nights this summer, the lounge in the new Wellness Center featured a large table made of smaller tables smushed together—with friends smushed even closer—around challah and food.
Students were celebrating Shabbat, coming together for dinners that were “very grounding,” says Ella Spungen ’23.5. And thanks to the temporary loosening of COVID restrictions in June and July, they were the “highlight” and “best part” of her summer.
Before the pandemic, Hillel—the center for Jewish life on campus—hosted Shabbat dinners every week for large groups of students in its social hall. To meet the challenges of the pandemic, Hillel developed a do-it-yourself Shabbat program that allows students to stay within their designated pods, explains assistant director Molly Goldmeier.
Students could either sign up for kosher catered meals or get reimbursed for takeout or groceries, Goldmeier says, empowering them to celebrate Shabbat in their own way—whether with friends in dorms or picnics on the Main Green. Hillel continued the program for Brown’s first summer academic term.
“Being able to have a home-cooked meal with friends is kind of radical at this moment,” Spungen says. For her, Shabbat symbolizes stepping back from the fast-moving pace of life and spending time with friends and community— it’s about “taking a breath.”
Spungen and friends typically go grocery shopping Friday and start making dinner, from baba ghanoush to pasta, in their floor’s kitchen; students who live off campus do the same at their rentals. Until the Delta variant caused restrictions to be re-imposed this fall, dinners weren’t limited just to close friends—friends of friends, along with curious neighbors, would stop by too.
“The past year we’ve had to think so much about who exactly is invited to what thing and how many people are allowed, so it was really nice to just feel like it was open to anybody,” says Ellie Barksdale ’23, adding that the dinners (sort of) replicated the dining hall experience lost during the pandemic.
“It kind of feels like when you’re in the V-Dub,” says Barksdale, “and you run into some person and they come sit with you, but then you see the people who you were supposed to have lunch with and they’re friends with someone else and you end up at this random table and you’re like, ‘I don’t really know how I got here, but we’re all here and sharing a meal and having fun.’”