Allow me to share with you a few of the many remarkable stories that have emerged from The Shabbos Project, which, three weeks ago, brought together tens of thousands of South African Jews to properly keep the entire Shabbat – many for the first time. Here is a very moving letter I received soon after that momentous Shabbat:
“Dear Chief Rabbi
My name is Tamryn Scheepers. I work at King David Linksfield Primary School [one of the largest Jewish day schools in Johannesburg], as an Afrikaans and sports teacher. I would like to share my experience of keeping Shabbos this weekend …
I am a Christian but have recently learned more about my family history. My [maternal] grandmother is French and was born during World War 2 near Calais in the northern area of France. Her mother’s family was Jewish (their surname Isaac), but because of the German occupation of France, they could not announce their religion, and my grandmother was brought up as a Catholic …
I decided to take part in ‘keeping it together’ after experiencing the ‘Challah Street Bake’ in Glenhazel [Johannesburg] on Thursday night. The amazing atmosphere in the streets was filled with kindness and the fun of sharing it with friends and family. This special brocha (yes, I have learnt some Hebrew too), was too special not to share …
I went to Sydenham Shul on Friday night with a work colleague … The one thing I learned from keeping Shabbos was that it forces you to rest and connect … The project has been so inspiring. I have a better knowledge of what family means, what religion means and what it means to love yourself. I did this project for myself and I have learnt that I can challenge myself to do things. I feel rejuvenated and reborn and full of life to share with my loved ones.
Thank you for this amazing and spiritual journey I was able to experience.”
This week, I spoke to Tamryn, and she told me that she now knows that in halachic terms she is Jewish. She and her mother are inspired and excited to continue the journey of rediscovering their Jewish heritage, and they plan to visit Israel in the near future. Tamryn says she feels that G-d directed her to become a teacher at the King David School so that she could reconnect with her Jewish heritage.
I was immediately reminded of a story related by the late Dayan I. Grunfeld of the London Beth Din of what an eye witness told him he saw on a train to the Nazi death camps:
“The train dragged on with its human freight. Pressed together like cattle in the crowded trucks, the unfortunate occupants were unable even to move. The atmosphere was stifling. As the Friday afternoon wore on, the Jewish men and women in the Nazi transport sank deeper and deeper into their misery.
Suddenly an old Jewish woman managed with a great effort to move and open her bundle. Laboriously she drew out – two candlesticks and two challoth. She had just prepared them for Sabbath when she was dragged from her home that morning. They were the only things she had thought worthwhile taking with her. Soon the Sabbath candles lit up the faces of the tortured Jews and the song of Lekhah Dodi transformed the scene. Sabbath with its atmosphere of peace had descended upon them all.”
The Jewish people with our G-d-given Shabbat ultimately prevailed over Nazi savagery. This miraculous victory is symbolized by the story of Tamryn Scheepers, whose grandmother was raised Catholic because the Nazis sought to eradicate Jews and Judaism. And yet a single Shabbat had the power to reverse 60 years of history.
Trying to comprehend the impact of Tamryn’s dramatic story, I came across a less dramatic, and yet profound email from Dan Chaitowitz, describing a scene in his Johannesburg home on the eve of The Shabbos Project:
“… Apart from the timeless clock, there sits a calendar upon the wall. The Lunar it beamed. And he read the word slowly like a kid reader, ‘le’ech lech ah’. And he said, ‘Yes, lech lecha. This weekend is the big Shabbos Project and on this weekend all the Jews in South Africa will hopefully attempt to ‘keep’ the Sabbath.’ There was a silence as he dragged his finger across the calendar in thought and then he grinned and said, ‘Oh, so it’s like the Jews will jump up at the same time, and hopefully the Earth will shift off its axis?’”
And in a certain sense that is actually what happened, that on Shabbat parshat Lech Lecha we all jumped together and the earth did shift off its axis for South African Jewry. The Gemara describes how the great sounds accompanying the giving of the Torah were heard from the one end of the world to the other; that the world shook as Hashem gave us His most precious treasure. Three weeks ago, South Africa shook, as the transformative power of Shabbat changed our community forever.
Tamryn’s story is emblematic of Shabbat’s power to reshape Jewish history and alter the course of Jewish destiny. But there are many other South African Jews whose lives have shifted off their own personal axis as a result of “just one Shabbos”. Stories continue to pour in, capturing the emotional and spiritual transformative impact of keeping Shabbat. Stories like that of Kim Tobias:
“It [The Shabbos Project] set off a community spirit as good as the World Cup Rugby or Soccer World Cup mania. But a lot more spiritual and a lot more meaningful to the soul. We have never kept Shabbos before, and it sounded quite daunting but we wanted to take on a challenge of this nature and try encourage whoever we could to come along for the ride. Our first phone call came from a neighbour who wanted to do a street party for the neighbourhood … Within three days the neighbourhood heard about this idea and clambered together to have 18 family neighbours from around the Linksfield North area … The spirit of the Shabbos Project came alive for all of us and we all had cold shivers and goosebumps when the kids said the Kiddush. We even got to bensch [recite birkat hamazon] after the meal underneath the starlit evening sky. What a moment in our lives. It will be remembered forever.”
Many other such e-mails and video testimonies (www.theshabbosproject.com) tell of lives deeply touched by keeping Shabbat for the very first time. Lisa Mervis wrote:
“The most profound part for my husband and I was the sense of unity and togetherness we felt as a family. When we came downstairs on Shabbos morning, our kids were playing a boardgame instead of watching TV as they usually are. We walked home from shul with special friends and hung out as a family all day, really engaging with each other because there were no electronics to distract us. The sense of peace I experienced from the minute I woke up until Saturday night was like being away for the weekend. I can see how powerful the impact of a Shabbos is for a family… It [The Shabbos Project] gave us the opportunity to experience Shabbos which is something we never would have tried to do. I look forward to doing it again.”
From these personal stories emerges an even greater universal story of Shabbat’s transformative power. From the beginning of time, G-d intertwined Shabbat into the very fabric of the universe. Its awesome power is part of our reality, and connects with our souls in a profound and moving way. These ideas resonate deeply as expressed by the many emails that have come in from Jewish communities around the globe requesting assistance to do The Shabbos Project in their cities. In response to these entreaties an international organization is being established to facilitate and direct The Shabbos Project in communities around the world on Shabbat parshat Lech Lecha 2014. Let us all jump together and shift the Jewish world off its axis.