For the past two years, Robin and Sabi Varon have graciously welcomed a diverse group of Jewish teenage boys to Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations at their home in Sandy Springs. Drawn from several schools and synagogues throughout metro Atlanta, these young men eagerly await spending a day or night with the Varons, whether for Shabbat or a Jewish holiday.
They know the conversation will be lively, the learning meaningful, the food delicious and the laughs plentiful. And perhaps, most importantly, at a time when Jewish leaders express concern about teen ambivalence toward Judaism, these boys embrace Shabbat and holiday participation with exuberance and commitment.
On a recent Tuesday night this month, seven boys braved the rain and fog to gather at the Varon home for a pre-Chanukah party. Robin had prepared a beautiful appetizer and dessert assortment with a variety of bourekas (savory filled pastries), jelly-filled doughnuts, candy, and chocolate gelt. Around the dining room table, Sabi, Robin and the boys discussed the symbolism of light dispelling darkness, particularly relevant for Chanukah, before the conversation transitioned into lighting the spark in each boy’s soul.
From the esoteric to the practical, Sabi also provided a cautionary tale in the mix of topics, stressing that the young people should stay away from drugs. “Drugs are artificial and temporary. Find G-d and you will be high for life,” he emphasized.
The Varons, their sense of humor, and their words of wisdom have certainly made an impression on these teens. Nate Friedman, a neighbor and one of the regular guests, said, “There is a warm and loving glow at the Varon home. Sabi is really engaging, and he puts on a show that is made for teenagers. He is able to teach us while he entertains us.”
The Varons seem to have found the secret sauce for instilling Jewish pride, knowledge, and observance into this motley group of athletes, musicians, and college-bound seniors. Not officially sponsored by any synagogue or organization, the Varons are inspired by their involvement with Chabad and the rebbe’s teachings. They have taken on this mission in large part because of their concern about Jewish continuity.
The group started gathering when two of the Varon’s teenage neighbors, Zach and Nate Friedman, and a few of their friends were invited to join them for a kiddush one Saturday, followed by dessert on a subsequent Shabbat. Word spread among the boys’ friends, and more teenagers started arriving at the Varon’s home on Friday nights.
“Each time we get together, I try to introduce a Jewish theme that will get them to think about their own place in the religion. They know I am their friend. When we see each other, we knock elbows, high five each other and act silly for the first few minutes. It’s not so serious, but we talk about important topics throughout the evening,” said Sabi.
A typical shabbat evening at the Varon’s begins with spirited conversations, followed by singing “Shalom Aleichem” to welcome the Shabbat and “Eshet Chayil,” written by King Solomon. Sabi leads the group through the other prayers, the Kiddush, handwashing and the Hamotzi, before the Friday night dinner begins, lovingly prepared and laid out by Robin, who also caters the Shabbat lunch at her synagogue, Congregation Beth Tefillah.
Several courses are served, beginning with appetizers and colorful salads such as homemade matbucha, babaganoush, cabbage salad, and tossed salad. A variety of dips, also made by Robin, include delicious garlic and herb confit, sundried tomato spread, and a mix of tapenades. In winter, there is an added soup course. The main course often includes an array of chicken and meat dishes, rice, and vegetables, followed by dessert, fruit, tea and coffee. With Sabi’s guidance for any newcomers, the boys bench Birkat Hamazon at the end of the meal.
Robin’s delicious meals are described as “feasts” by the boys. Cooper Bernath said that he appreciates the many courses she serves at each Shabbat and holiday celebration and that “her food leaves a lasting impression on everyone.” Zack Siegel agreed and commented, “Her food is so delicious; it’s like magic.”
“We want to welcome everyone and make each person feel comfortable. My passion is cooking and hosting people, and I do it all with love,” said Robin when asked about the time and hard work she puts into each teen gathering at her home.
The Varon Shabbats and holiday gatherings have become legendary among teenage boys in Sandy Springs, and the crowd has grown organically, simply by word-of-mouth. Each Shabbat that the boys join him, Sabi introduces a new topic or story to encourage their engagement and inspire their thinking. The Parsha (Torah portion) of the week is discussed in an accessible and meaningful manner, and questions are encouraged. Free from judgment, each teen provides his distinct point of view. The young men are refreshingly candid in sharing their opinions and opening up during this time.
“Sabi and Robin are great, and we can just be ourselves with them,” said frequent participant, Ian Maman. Zach Friedman jumped in to add, “Sabi makes Judaism fun, and we all enjoy his stories and songs.”
In addition to the pre-Chanukah party and ongoing Shabbat dinners, the Varons have hosted other holiday celebrations for the teens this past year, including an outdoor party for Lag B’omer and dinner for Sukkot. During Lag B’omer, Sabi honored kabbalist and author of the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, with a blazing bonfire, festive music, a fully decorated outdoor space and a cookout. For Sukkot, the boys ate dinner in the Varon sukkah and learned more about the holiday.
“When I went outside during Lag B’omer, I saw the whole group of boys jumping up and singing loudly in Hebrew,” said neighbor Beth Friedman. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought I had come upon a group of Yeshiva bokhers dancing around the bonfire. Their spirit was incredible and heartfelt.”
As many of these young men navigate high school and move on to college, the knowledge and inspiration they have gained from evenings spent with the Varons will long be remembered. As the pre-Chanukah party ended, the boys joined Sabi in a lively rendition of a song he sings regularly with the group, “To Love a Fellow Jew,” taken from a Chabad song book:
To love a fellow Jew, just the same as you, is the basis of our holy Torah.
He may be far from me, across the widest sea. Still, I’ll always love him just the same.
For 70, 80 years, a Neshamah (soul) wears and tears, just to do a favor for another.
Love him with all your heart, the heavens spread apart, and have your prayers answered speedily.
If the spirited young voices singing the song that night are an indication of the boys’ devotion to Jewish continuity, the Varons can rest assured they have certainly reached these boys, touching their hearts and minds for years to come.