For Jewish Insider Washington DC October 20 2022
It’s probably safe to say that no Friday night Shabbat dinner invitation ever landed quite like Londoner Dalia Lister’s: You’re not coming here to sit in a corner of the room with your friends, the invite warned, adding, if you’re not going to participate, you’re not welcome in the community.
The fledgling — and carefully curated — community that Lister is trying to build for young Jewish professionals in London launched in early September with “Not Your Mum’s Friday Night Dinner.” It’s not a religious event, or a charity event, or a singles mixer. “I didn’t want it to be just another social event,” Lister, 24 and the chief of staff at a tech startup, told Jewish Insider. “I wanted it to be for people who really wanted to come and mingle, who wanted to meet other people. Particularly now, post-COVID, when everything has been online.”
Lister is a graduate of Imperial College, London, where she studied engineering. At 15 she began working as an intern for the owners of the educational technology startup company UpTime, where she is now chief of staff.
During her adolescence, she told JI, she was never allowed to go to parties with her non-Jewish school friends on Friday nights. But once out in the world of work, she discovered different options: “religious events, in synagogues, which I do go to, and charity events.
“But some people don’t feel comfortable in a shul, or perhaps haven’t grown up going to shul,” Lister added. “On the other hand, there are charity events, that I’ve also gone to, and they’re also great, and I support many of them and am an ambassador for a couple of them. But again, they don’t attract everyone. And then there are singles events, but there isn’t actually anything for connecting people, whether you are single or not.”
Lister now lives in central London and is a member of nearby Mortimer House, a members’ club that houses a co-working space, bars and a restaurant, a small workout gym and private rooms for hire for meetings. She began discussing her idea of a Jewish young professionals event with Mortimer House staff in August — and it was suggested that it should be held at the club.
In 2022 London, even a social event needs meticulous planning: and so Lister, true to her business instincts, drew up a business plan. “It was to be a young persons’ dinner for connecting people, but a traditional Friday night format. I said it wasn’t to be religiously affiliated or charity affiliated. I wanted to bring together young people around London aged between 23-35, motivated, engaged people.”
She posted a piece on her private Instagram account about the planning for “Not Your Mum’s” — “and I had 25 messages in 10 minutes from people asking where they could sign up.” Sensing that she was on to something, Lister opened an online waitlist — “and in two weeks 170 people had signed.”
Using a work marketing technique where “member begets member,” Lister then picked different “ambassadors.” either in different age ranges or in different groupings, such as global professionals working in London, and people in different professions — “tech, finance, the arts, journalism.” She asked them to help her by posting on their own social media and talking to their contacts. “Everyone wanted to be involved.”
For Mortimer House, Lister says, the appeal was in attracting a new and slightly younger demographic to the club. She began making flyers and also some online pages to describe what she was doing.
The first “Not Your Mum” event included some ground rules. “I said it wasn’t cool to be cliquey, and that if you don’t mingle, you won’t be invited back,” Lister explained. “I was taking a stance — saying to people, you’re not coming here to sit in a corner of the room with your friends. If you’re not going to participate, you’re not welcome in the community.” This appears to have acted as somewhat of a wake-up call, telling potential participants that this was going to be a different kind of event from “something that their mother had pushed them to attend, saying, ‘Go to this, maybe you’ll meet your husband or wife.’”
She also required people to say who had referred them, meaning she could track how people were hearing about the event. “At the end of the day, it is a Jewish event, so it had to be a safe environment. But it was also good to know how the wait list had grown.”
As word spread, it became apparent that there were whole untapped numbers of young professionals in London — because Lister herself, familiar with the London Jewish social scene, did not know half of the names on the list.
On September 9, “Not Your Mum’s Friday Night Dinner” took place for the first time at Mortimer House. Seventy people sat down for a traditional Shabbat dinner. “People came after work, and had drinks; then we sat down, there was kiddush, and because it was the day after the Queen died, we also had the prayer for the Royal Family [usually said in UK synagogues on Shabbat], with the first mention of King Charles.”
There were flowers on the tables, and lists of ice-breaking “conversation starters” — jokey ideas to get the talk flowing, such as asking people how they signed off emails, or what were their “red lines” [for ending a conversation or a relationship]. And Lister also produced a “founder’s note,” welcoming guests — who had each paid £55 ($62) for the evening — and setting out some of her thoughts about the event.
It was nearly midnight by the time the last person left Mortimer House. “People loved it. It was very, very, mingly” — aided by Lister’s ambassadors, who spent time introducing people to each other over the course of the evening. “Someone said it was the best Jewish event they’d ever been to, which is a massive compliment — and you do like to get customer satisfaction.”
Ben, a longtime friend of Lister, was among those who helped her organise the event. A 26-year-old working in venture capital, he thought the intention was to hold an event “not associated with any charity, synagogue or rabbi, but that it should be a stand-alone, unique Friday night.”
It wasn’t like a regular singles event, he says, more networking for young professionals — and even some people who attended in couples. “It was refreshing, because it was very different. There was no agenda, it was free-flowing, and attracted a very good audience. I only knew about six or seven people there. I think there was an appetite for seeing people in the aftermath of COVID.”
Another friend of Lister, Claudia, is 24 and a journalist. She thought the idea was “really exciting; there is definitely a gap in the market for something like this. The focus was very much on making friends — I went with my boyfriend and we met lots of new people. It was also really nice to go to a Jewish event which wasn’t super-religious.”
Nothing could have been more tailor-made for Olivia, 27, who is French-American — her father lives in Singapore and her mother in Paris — because she had landed a new job just four weeks earlier, as head of creative promotions at Lister’s company. “I arrived in London and met Dalia,” she told JI. “When we realised we were both Jewish, she told me about the Friday night event. It was the first time I had ever been to anything like that on my own, and I felt very much at ease. People were very friendly, keen to meet and talk.”
The well-established French community in London lacks a strong Jewish presence, so Olivia was more than happy to go to Lister’s event. “I wanted to meet new people in London with similar values and who had had a similar upbringing. I felt very comfortable and I’d happily do it again. I’m now in touch with people who were there. I’d never have thought of going to a Jewish event alone but it was a great and warm atmosphere, I really enjoyed it. I think actually it was a reflection of Dalia’s personality — she is very warm and welcoming, and the event mirrored that.”
Now Lister is considering how to follow up. She’s decided to run “Not Your Mum’s Friday Night Dinner” four times a year, continuing with sponsorship from drinks companies and Mortimer House itself. She’s also found interest from non-Jewish people — not least, she says, because people want to network and don’t go to pubs anymore to do that. “It’s also about creating a comfortable environment,” she says.
She’s already planning a Halloween event for 150 people, both Jews and non-Jews, for October 29 (“Not Your Neighbourhood Trick or Treat”), which has attracted several commercial sponsors, and says the format has the potential to move to other venues.
“In tech, we have this concept of ‘test and learn.’ So for the ‘Not Your’ events, I’m learning all the time what works and what doesn’t. And all the skills I’m using now, I’ve learned at work.”
Lister grew up attending secular schools. The experience, she says, has made her fiercely committed to her Judaism, but also open to the cultural opportunities in the wider community. But she has always appreciated the breathing space that Shabbat gives, and going back to “people that you love” on a Friday night.
Ironically, Lister did actually get advice from her own mother before the September 9 event. “Just make it a really good event,” Lister’s mother told her. “Just make it something that people will really want to come to.’
Who was it said, if you will it, it’s no dream? Lister seems to have listened to her mother.