students tossing challah at a Shabbat meal at the Center for Jewish Life.

Bridging Cultures: Two Duke Students’ Initiative to Share Jewish Traditions

Amid a global climate of rising antisemitism, Duke students foster understanding and celebrate diversity through the power of Shabbat

As someone who took pride in her Jewish identity, Edelman wondered how she could share a piece of that with her friends. And so came the idea to host a Shabbat dinner for her fellow interns. Shabbat is the weekly day of rest in Judaism; it begins at sundown each Friday night and continues until Saturday evening, and is traditionally observed with candle-lighting, singing, prayers, and a festive, communal dinner.

Edelman and her summer roommate led their friends in traditional blessings over candles, hand washing, wine and challah. It was a night of community, joy, learning, and cultural appreciation. The positive experience had a snowball effect.

“That night was one of my proudest moments, and I was absolutely positive I wanted to do it again once back at Duke,” said Edelman.

Back on Duke’s campus, the fall 2023 semester started off as usual, but Edelman, like so many around the world, was shaken on Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists waged the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust – killing more than 1,200 Israelis and taking hundreds of civilians hostage.

After the October 7 attack and Israel’s military response in Gaza, Edelman felt the repercussions of rising antisemitism on a local level.

“I lost multi-year long friendships with people who suddenly had no empathy for what I was going through,” she said. “As I saw social media posts from people I considered friends, not only denying what happened on October 7, but even posting blatantly false information, I realized that the ignorance I always knew people had about Jews was something really dangerous.”

Attend a Student-Hosted Passover Seder

The Duke community is invited on April 22 to participate in Jewish Life at Duke’s (JLD) Passover Seders (ritual meals) on campus.

In addition to a communal seder at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life led by Rabbi Elana Friedman, students will be hosting 15+ seders across campus and off-campus, with food provided or subsidized by Jewish Life at Duke. JLD provides student hosts with seder plates with the ritual food items, haggadot, paper goods, a multi-course dinner, and training in how to host a seder. Many students choose to put their own twist on the tradition by giving themes to their seders.

All Duke students, faculty, and staff are welcome, regardless of faith tradition. Register to attend a Passover seder by April 15.

She felt deflated watching people she knew “confidently reduce what it means to be Jewish down to a few stereotypical and largely incorrect bullet points.” She felt that the wide diversity she so cared about within Judaism was being framed as nonexistent. 

“They had never met a non-white Jew before, and therefore they didn’t really exist,” she said of the assumptions. “They had never met a poor Jew before, and therefore they didn’t really exist. They had never met a religious Jew before, and therefore they didn’t really exist.”

Edelman turned to her Duke roommate, fellow Jewish student Delaney Eisen. They talked about the worries they felt given the antisemitism displayed on social media while also feeling a responsibility to continue being proudly and outwardly Jewish. She thought back to her summer experience, the newfound appreciation and respect her fellow interns expressed toward her beloved Judaism, and decided that upon returning to campus following winter break, “I would host the Shabbat I have wanted to host since June.”

Edelman and Eisen designed a menu that aimed to reflect the ethnic diversity of the Jewish people. They included Ashkenazi dishes they had grown up with: brisket, noodle kugel, schnitzel, and matzah ball soup, but they also included a variety of dishes that originate from outside of Europe: tahdig, a saffron crispy rice eaten by Jews from Persia; sanbat wat, a chicken stew eaten by Jews from Ethiopia; matbucha, a spicy tomato-pepper dip from Morocco; and manti, dumplings eaten by Bukharan Jews from Central Asia. They wrote out placards with the names and origins of each dish for their guests.

“My favorite was making malabi, a rice pudding dessert that I had in Israel for the first time two years ago,” said Eisen of the rose water dessert originating from Turkey.

Left, challah made for the Shabbat meal. Above, hummus. Right, a student’s plate of food.
students with a plate of food

After three straight days of cooking came the time to celebrate Shabbat in a packed house filled to the brim with more than 40 friends. Edelman and Eisen led the traditional Shabbat prayers. They also participated in a Sephardic tradition of throwing challah rather than passing it around. Rebecca stood in front of their friends and shared how meaningful it was to them that they were there to share a meal together filled with food and culture that was new to them.

“Looking around the room while [Rebecca] said those words, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of community,” said Eisen. She was touched by her friends’ genuine interest in the cultural origins of the dishes, their questions about the meaning of the Jewish blessings recited, and their earnest attempts to try – “like I do every High Holidays,” she said – to sing along to prayers in a language they did not know.

preparing the shabbat meal.
Preparing the Shabbat meal.

Edelman and Eisen reached out to Rabbi Elana Friedman, Campus Rabbi and Jewish Chaplain at Duke University. Jewish Life at Duke (JLD), a department within Duke’s Division of Student Affairs as well as an accredited Hillel, is committed to empowering Jewish students to learn and grow intellectually and spiritually; to inspiring and nurturing personal paths to Jewish identity; and to cultivating community and friendship.

As part of that mission, JLD offers funding for students who create and host their own Jewish experiences, finding ways to personalize their practice, while honoring the roots of ancient Jewish tradition. Their Shabbat dinner was just that, and Jewish Life at Duke provided funding to make it possible.

“JLD and Rabbi Elana have consistently shown me that there are different ways to be Jewish,” said Eisen, who participated alongside Edelman in JLD’s Jewish Learning Fellowship, a 10-week cohort-style seminar that encourages students to explore life’s big questions through a Jewish lens, in the fall of 2020.

In this program, “I got to be in conversation with Jews from across the U.S., talking about important topics across the board.” These conversations helped Eisen feel comfortable sharing her culture with others, recognizing the diversity within the Jewish community. “I am so glad the Shabbat dinner was possible through the support of JLD and Rabbi Elana, my roommate Rebecca, and the amazing little community we’ve built within Duke.”

Edelman reflected back on what she deems one of the happiest nights of her life, gathering people to share aspects of her Jewish culture. “I am proud to be Jewish, and since this summer, I’ve realized how much joy it brings me to share it with others,” she said. “Plus, I really love feeding people, which is sort of Jewish in its own way.”