VENICE, ITALY – Hundreds of Jewish travelers lined tables along Venice, Italy’s Cannaregio Canal one recent Friday night for a starlit Sabbath dinner so big it had to happen in three shifts. Italian, Hebrew, French and English echoed through the streets as they started an event many had come to Venice specifically to experience. And it all took place just steps from where the gates to the area’s Jewish Ghetto once stood.

Young men danced circles in the streets as Chabad-Lubavitch of Venice director Rabbi Rami Banin shuttled back and forth between tables making sure everyone got bread, salads, fish, meat, cake and watermelon for dessert. A rabbinical student, part of a group spending the end of the summer in the Italian city, spoke to those gathered about the strength of the Jewish people and of the significance of so many coming together for a meal like this. The singing and eating was only winding down at 2:00 in the morning.

Ahuva Schumaman, 26, of Sydney, Australia, was coming through Venice on a much-awaited family holiday and found out about the Chabad dinner online. Participants pay ahead of the meals and can have dinner and lunch at kosher restaurant Gam Gam, which adds extra tables and chairs to its outdoor seating area to accommodate the crowd.

“It was honestly more than I could have ever imagined, it was so special,” she said after the Sabbath had ended, explaining how in addition to the importance of being able to find kosher food and a Sabbath-friendly environment on her travels, she very much appreciated the sense of home the Chabad House created. “It was a melting pot for all different people from around the world and united people as family even though they’ve never met before.”

Chabad-Lubavitch of Venice regularly hosts services and meals for an eclectic medley of men in black hats and women in long skirts, young women in jean shorts and fellows in short-sleeved tees.

Jewish dancing on the streets of Venice. (File photo)
Jewish dancing on the streets of Venice. (File photo)
Schumaman said bringing all walks of life together was part of what made the experience meaningful, from Friday night to the lunch Saturday afternoon and on through the Havdalah ceremony marking the close of the Sabbath, which was held in the nearby square.

J. J. Marmor, 21, was traveling Europe with a friend and made sure Chabad of Venice was one of their stops during their three week trip. They rolled in Friday afternoon to take in the European setting, the Venice background and the Jewish experience.

“Everyone told us we should be in Venice for Shabbat,” he said, adding that he was glad to see a Jewish atmosphere and Jewish crowd in a European city. “It was a little unexpected. I can’t imagine that they have this everywhere.”

Kiki Halpern, 19, made her way to Venice on her way back to Toronto from Israel.

“I literally just sat and walked around and talked to people all Shabbat,” she said. “I had a full conversation with people in French, though I don’t speak French at all.”