Jeanie Milbauer’s Oneg looks to bring Shabbat to the masses
Oneg offers up modernized Judaica and supplemental guiding materials to help make the weekly ritual more accessible
When Jeanie Milbauer’s eldest daughter was 5 years old, she brought home a Torah portion worksheet from school regarding the biblical matriarch Sarah for the family to read over the weekend.
“The school sent home simple readings and questions, but without context,” Milbauer recalled in an email to Jewish Insider. “I asked the kids why Eliezer picked Rebecca [to be Isaac’s wife], and the little one, almost 2 years old, picked up her head and said the word ‘water!’”
Milbauer, despite always feeling connected to her Judaism — she’d grown up going to summer camp and Hebrew school, traveled to Israel and attended High Holiday services — had never really practiced her faith.
“I don’t know that I had even lit a Shabbat candle prior to raising my own children,” Milbauer said. That moment, however, when her 18-month-old casually answered correctly a question about the parsha, is when Milbauer said her family’s “Shabbat journey began in earnest.”
These days, Shabbat is an integral part of Milbauer’s life as the founder and CEO of the recently launched Oneg, a company that curates modern Judaica and guiding materials to make Shabbat more accessible to those who want to observe.
“Not only [do we] make it [easy], but take down all those barriers to entry,” Milbauer said.
Oneg offers a variety of handcrafted ritual items, but its Shabbat Box is a one-stop shop for everything one would need to host their own celebration.
“My feeling is, is once you get to know somebody really well you can’t not connect on some level. And [connection is] one of the things, really the most important, or what we found is the most impactful [aspect] of this whole box.” Milbauer told JI over Zoom.
Each box contains a set of wooden candlesticks with candles and a glass collar set, matches, a match-resting dish, an embroidered challah cover and a ceramic Kiddush cup — all one of a kind and available in a variety of colors.
Rounding out the box are four Shabbat guidebooks and Oneg’s signature conversation cards, which Milbauer sees as the “centerpiece” of the collection. Each card is meant to relate to the theme of that week’s parsha, or Torah portion, fostering meaningful conversations around the table.
“Judaism is a communal sport. Our materials are experiential for everyone to participate. Oneg’s [conversation] cards were created to spark an exchange of ideas, to talk with each other without interruption or judgment,” Milbauer said. “The cards elevate the Shabbat experience, engaging people who’d never even celebrated Shabbat before. I’ve learned things about friends I would never have known; it’s brought us closer to friends and to our family.”
Beth Marcus, an Oneg customer from New York, had similar sentiments about the conversation cards and overall Shabbat Box’s ability to create an “interactive experience at the Shabbat table.”
“The cards give whoever is at our table — our adult kids, friends, those who have not before celebrated Shabbat — a way to get involved,” she said.
In addition to Oneg’s purchasable products, those requiring further support can go on the company’s website for pages dedicated to Shabbat melodies such as “Shalom aleichem” and “Eshet Chayil,” to teach those less familiar with the Jewish ritual how to recite the blessings at their own tables; the Jewish holiday calendar; and Milbauer’s blog, which includes recipes and hosting tips from the founder herself.
Milbauer hasn’t ruled out the possibility of focusing on other Jewish holy days as well, but she sees Shabbat as “the base of Judaism,” which is why she said it will always be at the heart of Oneg.
Oneg, is the byproduct of Milbauer’s inherent desire to create community.
“I’m about bringing people together in a joyful way, in a beautiful way, both the experience and the thing,” Milbauer told JI. “I think we all want to celebrate and connect and laugh and learn; learn from each other and with each other, and tighten our relationships and bonds with our family, our kids, our friends.”
Milbauer grew up as a self-described “social action Reform Jew” in Westchester County, N.Y. Her mother ran her synagogue’s gift shop and baked challah on the weekends, but to Milbauer, none of it was “infused with meaning.”
A lawyer by trade in New York, Milbauer’s early career aspirations led her to Los Angeles in order to pivot into the movie business — her father was a producer. After meeting her husband, the two moved to Washington, D.C., where Milbauer had lived as an undergrad, and where, upon her return, she worked for the Recording Industry Association of America until her second child was born, when her focus turned to full-time mothering and volunteering.
It was around that time that Milbauer and her husband began “dipping our toes more into Judaism and Shabbat.”
“Judaism is our GPS for life,” Milbauer said. “It guides us how to be with family and friends, it guides us how to be in business. It’s everything, and when you get that, feel that, know that, you want to share it, and I want my kids to know who they are and where they came from and what their traditions are.”
Her three children are now all in their 20s, and while today the family belongs to Adas Israel Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in D.C., when they were first looking to get more involved, they didn’t know where to start.
Part of the problem, Milbauer explained, lay in the absence of guiding materials for those who hadn’t gone to day school or been taught the rituals early on. Learning sessions with friends, as well as Shabbat meals both at home and around the neighborhood, helped, but, as Milbauer noted, “it was never in a box.”
Shabbat became a treasured time in Milbauer’s home, so much so that her kids would get upset if they had a weekend without guests coming for dinner. But that initial struggle, mixed with interest in greater observance from family and friends who attended meals at Milbauer’s home, first sparked her idea for Oneg.
The second was lit by Milbauer’s previous venture, Momentum Unlimited, a global nonprofit aiming to “empower women to change the world through Jewish values.”
Formerly the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, Momentum was created in 2008 by a group of eight women of varying religious backgrounds — dubbed the “Utah 8.” Momentum’s flagship program is its MOMentum Year-Long Journey, described by Milbauer as a “Birthright for Mothers.”
As co-founder and founding board president, Milbauer stayed with Momentum until December 2022, just shy of 15 years. During the pandemic, when trips abroad were halted, Momentum had to shift its focus toward education, giving Milbauer an opening to establish Oneg.
“Momentum owns education. We’re guiding, right? And then Oneg is the joy and pleasure and delight of Shabbat,” Milbauer said.
Milbauer still sits on Momentum’s President’s Council, but her main focus is now on Oneg, which officially launched its family and friends “soft launch” in September 2022. In preparation for Oneg’s public launch at the end of June, Milbauer and her team are working to build out the product line — taking ideas from her own tastes as well as from customer reviews.
Becca Schecter, who first met Milbauer on a Momentum trip and now consults for Oneg to help the brand grow, emphasized Milbauer’s ability to share her “passion for Shabbat and how life-changing it can be.”
Schecter bought a Shabbat Box for her own family, which she noted as having a “huge impact” on helping them connect to the ritual.
“One of the things that resonates the most with me about both Oneg and its products is that they are not designed to make people more religious,” Schecter told JI in an email. “They really are a way to bring the most ancient mindfulness practice into homes. In this chaotic world, people of all ages are looking for ways to be more mindful, find more peace and for many, have more gratitude as a way to find happiness. Oneg helps you pause and reflect and share quality time with others.
Oneg’s current catalog was a labor of love for Milbauer, who has long seen herself as a “creative at heart” — before Oneg and Momentum, Milbauer had started an interior design business and was dabbling with the idea of creating a “party in a box for adults.” In her own home, Milbauer has always enjoyed layering her Shabbat table; placing the old with the new to modernize the holiday while still honoring tradition.
“We’re at a time when people crave more than just products,” Milbauer said. “We’re the tool for the experience.”
To bring her vision to life, Milbauer worked with a number of local artists: Ellie Goldberg designed the original prototype for the Kiddush cup; Joe Goldberg (no relation to Ellie) shot Oneg’s original product photography, which Milbauer credits with helping the brand gain recognition; and Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, whom Milbauer met during his time working at Adas Israel before he left to become executive director at Princeton University’s Center for Jewish Life, wrote the first draft of the Shabbat guidebook and served as a mentor to Milbauer.
“We’re selling connection and community. That’s what we’re selling. And we’re doing it through the tools of these really beautiful objects,” Milbauer said.
To help widen Oneg’s reach, Milbauer revealed that Oneg’s products will soon be available for purchase at two local shops in the D.C. area, one in Georgetown and one in Bethesda, Md.
The partnerships will put Oneg in front of a larger audience, one that does not necessarily skew Jewish. But to Milbauer, Oneg’s target audience has always been much broader.
“[Oneg is for] people who either want to enhance their practice or people who are curious,” Milbauer said. “So it’s really everybody…it’s humans.”
Milbauer recalled an event Oneg held at her Washington home, where the company is currently based, as a fundraiser for one of the local schools. Out of all the attendees, Milbauer remembered one woman in particular who grew very excited to see Oneg’s products; despite not being Jewish, her family had begun celebrating Shabbat the month before. That moment really drove home for Milbauer the universality of the holiday and what her products could mean to others.
At its core, Oneg’s mission is simple: “We’re all trying to figure out how to be Jews in the 21st century. If I can help do that, I would feel success,” Milbauer said.