Every Friday night, Chabad at McGill hosts its weekly Shabbat dinner for the local student and downtown Jewish community. This is something I’ve always wanted to write about. There’s nothing more cultural than food—and the occasion it brings.
So, this week, my friend Maya and I joined the other 100-something mostly students for the Shabbat dinner at the Chabad Jewish centre on Rue Peel. It is free for McGill students and $50 per person if you’re not affiliated with McGill. Shabbat is a day of rest and celebration in Judaism that lasts from the sunset of Friday to the following evening. Chabad is one of the largest Jewish organizations globally, with around 3,500 locally funded institutions in 100 different countries. Each one hosts its own Shabbat for its local Jewish community.
We arrive at 7:45 pm—15 minutes late. The house sits tall and narrowly between a row of semi-detached buildings, with a stately Chabad plaque in stone and an enormous glass door. The dinner takes place upstairs in a long, grey-walled congregation room.
The evening begins with Kabbalat, or Shabbat services, involving hymns and prayers. Men and women are separated by a divider called a mechitza. Men must also wear a kippah, which they provide—but most wear their own.
Rabbi Shmuly, a brown-haired bearded man, leads the service from the men’s side. He’s dressed in a long black coat, a white dress shirt, smart black pants, a black hat, and tzitzits. The service is sung in Hebrew. My knowledge of Hebrew is like a Brit’s of baseball, so I mumble along. As we sing, the Rabbi sways passionately, lifting up his front foot slightly, and back again.
After, there’s a mad dash and I’m not quite sure where to go. A collective of students ready the tables for the feast. They organize seven long white-clothed tables, with 16 seats or so. Maya and I, panicking, choose to sit at the end of one of the central tables.
Before we sit down, there is a blessing (Kiddush) to toast that Shabbat has begun. The Rabbi drinks a cup of wine, the more Orthodox practice, while everyone else has a half-shot of grape juice.
We sit down and the feast begins: Starter, soup, meat, dessert, drinks, and a lesson from the Rabbi. Excited as I was to eat traditional Jewish food, it’s Mexican night.
To start, we enjoy chips, salad, and dips, including pico de gallo and salsa verde. There’s also Challah bread—a Jewish speciality.
More people funnel in now. The atmosphere is lively.
“There are lots of people to talk to, lots of food, everyone wants to socialize,” Joey Hershklop, U2 Engineering, says. “I almost always meet someone new.”
Erik Mas, U2 Arts, emphasizes the importance for new international students.
“As an international student […] Chabad helps you feel welcome in this new environment,” Mas says.
Unusually, Maya and I don’t end up sitting opposite students, but rather an Israeli couple in their fifties who tell us how it’s their first time in Montreal. The gentleman then asks, lowering his voice: “Are you Jewish?” Ah, you caught me. I explain I’m not but that I’m writing a piece on Shabbat and Jewish food. He then points down with this jocular, cheeky-chappy grin and says: “But this is Mexican?” Before the grin could simmer, Maya adds: “And the best Mexican you’ll have in a while, so enjoy.” His grin turns into a rosy, infectious smile.
As the tortilla soup arrives, the Rabbi gives the d’Var Torah (a lesson of the week): “It’s never too late to learn something new,” he says. We raise a glass before tucking into the meat: Huge platters of chicken, salad, tomato pasta-bake, and rice. And after this, dessert: Brownies.
It’s now 10:30 p.m. and I don’t think my stomach has room for more. But I wish it did. The food is endless. The sense of community is tangible.
Reflecting on the weekly occasion, Rose Noskwith, U3 Arts, puts it: “Through Chabad, I feel lucky to have found a supportive Jewish community away from home.”