By Simon Apfel
“Life would never be the same again…”
James Kennard, the principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College in Melbourne, was reflecting on an extraordinary Shabbat in 2014 that some believe changed the face of Melbourne Jewry for good. But he might just as easily have been talking about the rest of the Jewish world.
The Shabbat Project was introduced in South Africa in 2013 to astonishing effect: tens of thousands of South African Jews of all backgrounds and levels of Jewish observance joined together to keep a Shabbat.
The majority of South African Jews kept the Shabbat in full, most for the first time in their lives. Perhaps more significantly, it drew people together – religious, secular, traditional; young and old – in ways never seen before.
Streets thronged with families walking together to shul. The night air was filled the sweet songs of Shabbat and the smells of Shabbat cooking. Synagogues overflowed. Homes were filled with family life.
Images and personal testimonies from South Africa flashed across the internet. Soon people were writing in from around the world, eager to bring the Shabbat Project to their own cities and communities.
And so, the international Shabbat Project was born: “One Shabbat celebrated – and kept in full – across the world, by the entire Jewish people, at the same time”.
For the inaugural international Shabbat Project, held on October 24/25, 2014, hundreds of thousands of people in 460 cities around the world took part – not just in unique Shabbat programmes, but in city-wide, spirited pre-Shabbat “Challah Bakes” and post-Shabbat “Havdallah Concerts”.
By 2015, the Shabbat Project had doubled in size, reaching 918 cities and 84 countries.
Last year, that grew to more than 1 500 cities and 101 countries.
At the forefront of the Shabbat Project is the idea of Jewish unity. One of the unique aspects of the initiative is its neutrality; the idea that all factional identities – all denominations, affiliations, ideologies, and political differences – are set aside.
Hence, the tagline of the Shabbat Project – “Keeping it together”.
“Unity is key, says Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, Chief Rabbi of South Africa, and founder and chief architect of the Shabbat Project. “As Jews around the world, across our divisions, it’s something we do together. The power of that shared experience is unimaginable.”
With its universal appeal – a day of rest, of switching off, of family togetherness – the Shabbat Project brings together all Jewish “factions”, and helps people unearth or rediscover their Jewish identity against this backdrop of unity and solidarity.
This is especially powerful in today’s age, where there is a cultural backlash against postmodernism, with people hungrier for meaning and belonging and identity than ever before.
“At the centre of the Shabbat Project is, of course, the mitzvah of Shabbat,” says Goldstein, “a crucial mitzvah which is a pillar of Jewish life that unites and enables us find renewed inspiration in our Jewish identity.”
Jews like Linda Friedland of Perth, Australia, who hosted a Friday night Shabbat Project dinner epitomising this unity, this collective celebration of Jewishlife. Her account of that evening is incredibly moving:
“As I sit here now just a few hours after the last crumbs have been vacuumed off the floor, fragments of the day swirl through my mind. The melody of Shalom Aleichem booming out from our home as the crowd beats rhythmically on the long wooden tables… observant kids and non-observant kids singing together… a recent convert laughing with an eighth generation Yerushalmi… leftwing and rightwing politics flowing freely between the different youth movements… chiloni and dati Israelis sharing army memories into the early hours… thirty teenagers sans screens and smartphones having face-to-face conversations… spicy aromas and sweet hot challah. A sublime twenty-five hours of being graced with sweet resonance, unity and goodness.”
Meanwhile, in Orange County, local organisers encouraged “start-up Challah Bakes” in private homes, parks, streets, shuls and neighborhood centres, with the team distributing more than 1600 “challah kits”, including various Shabbat items and guide booklets.
“The most beautiful thing was that for the first time I can remember, we had Jews from across the board, every generation, from Reform to Conservative, under one roof – we even had unaffiliated Jews join us from South County,” said lead organiser, Alison H. “The one thing we all had in common was that we wanted to be part of something bigger, something we could all be a part of no matter our level of Jewish practice. On this Shabbat, we were simply proud Jews among thousands upon thousands of proud Jews worldwide.”
In 2016, a “human chain” initiative in Melbourne saw Jews of all persuasions joining together to walk to synagogues across the city, picking up people at hundreds of stops along the way.
“It wasn’t about my shul or your shul,” says coordinator, Rabbi Moshe Kahn. “The emphasis was on going to whatever shul you could that was within walking distance.”
Kahn reports that typically more than 100 Jewish organisations in Melbourne put on events over the Shabbat. “There’s no competition, everyone is a part of The Shabbat Project,” he says. “This is something that’s larger than any individual or any individual organisations. At our last meeting, I took a moment to look around the room at the diversity of our committee members and I got goosebumps.”
Not to be outdone, last year, Sydney hosted a remarkable 125 events, which together drew 13,000 people. The headline initiative was a “Shabbat Tent” at the Bondi Pavilion – described as “a grassroots festival of chilled vibes in a tech-free space for young adults”. Over the course of Shabbat, participants enjoyed Shabbat services, mindfulness workshops, international guest speakers, gourmet Shabbat meals and a Havdallah Concert.
“We witnessed an absolutely awe-inspiring expression of community unity,” says local organiser Kate Samowitz. “We saw increased attendance in shuls, and groundbreaking collaboration between diverse community organisations and shul communities, who put aside differences and worked together to bring the Shabbat Project to life in many dynamic new ways.”
One of the most remarkable dimensions of the story of the Shabbat Project is how quickly everything happened. In just a few months after the project was introduced in South Africa, a global social movement sprung to life, with groups working on The Shabbat Project in hundreds of cities, and across eight languages.
And while the Shabbat Project is in some instances coordinated and managed through formal communal organisations and partners, the initiative is essentially a grassroots social movement, driven “by the people for the people”.
“The Shabbat Project is not a top-down bureaucratic organisation”, says Chief Rabbi Goldstein – “it’s a movement of the people; a grassroots initiative being driven by thousands and thousands of people throughout the world who have made the project their own; who connect with its ideals and objectives, and feel a sense of responsibility for bringing it to their communities and bringing it to life.”
The extraordinary network of partners encompasses some 8,000 volunteer leaders in cities around the world – all devoting incalculable time and effort to bring the Shabbat Project to their communities, and originating innovative ideas that have kept the Shabbat Project fresh and exciting, year after year.
From a Yoga Retreat in Rockland County to a Glow in the Dark Challah Bake in Costa Rica; from a Cruise Line Shabbaton in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to a Shabbat on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro; from a musical Kabbalat Shabbat for thousands on Bondi Beach to a Seudah Shlishit in a bar in central Jerusalem. Pop-up shuls, street dinners, glamping, couchsurfing, you name it, they’ve pulled it off.
The events come in all sizes – a Havdallah Concert in Buenos Aires for 12,000 people; 14 friends new to the Shabbat experience sharing a Friday night dinner with the Meshchaninov family of Rockland County, New York; 33 strangers in Fernley, deep in the Nevada desert (perhaps the majority of the city’s entire Jewish population) at an open-invitation Shabbat meal at the home of Keli Rae; a Friday night dinner for 3,000 people on the streets of LA.
“The logistical requirements alone seem impossible, but enough people have done it, it is do-able,” says Alyssa Baumgarten, who heads up the Shabbat Project in Miami. “Being a partner is a very rewarding experience that changes you and changes your community. You have a real impact on peoples’ lives. How often do you get a chance to do that? How often do you get a chance to build unity among the Jewish people or help someone kindle a Jewish connection?”
Holding this vast army of volunteers together is a team of professionals at Shabbat Project headquarters in Johannesburg and an international call centre in Tel Aviv – strategists, designers, copywriters, social media gurus, project managers – all experts in their field, who are committed, loyal, and love the project.
“They who do what they do not because it’s a job, but because it’s a calling, something they truly believe in,” says Goldstein. “When great people come together like this you can really change the world.”
The Shabbat Project genuinely has changed the world. And at the centre of it all is the mitzvah of Shabbat.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the Shabbat Project is how its message has resonated with the modern world. Shabbat seems to be an aspect of Judaism that holds a particular resonance for these times.
Many of today’s leading behavioural scientists, neurologists, psychologists and social commentators point to a “crisis of attention” in the digital age – a world that has become a constant feed of information and entertainment, a procession of beeps and pings and pop-ups doing battle for our attention. “A world in which we are so besieged by distractions,” says Goldstein, “we’ve forgotten how to live.
Innumerable studies show serious harm being done to relationships, social skills, concentration levels, physical memory, physical wellbeing, even our ability to feel. And almost invariably, the solutions put forward – more face-to-face time, digital detox, slowing down, taking a nap, going for a walk, deep breathing, self-reflection, distraction-free meals around the table – point in the direction of Shabbat.
“What does the modern world crave more than anything else today?” asks Goldstein. “A sense of togetherness in a world of fragmentation; a sense of calm in a world of unrelenting pressure; a sense of connectedness in a world where we are constantly besieged by electronic communication, and by the unceasing demands of the working world. Into this maelstrom, the G-d-given gift of Shabbat enters as an island of tranquillity – an opportunity to really live.”
A unique tranquility and intimacy permeates the home on Shabbat, he says.
“No one has to answer the phone or rush off. No one is distracted by the screens of information and entertainment that saturate our world. We are left with a remarkable, uninterrupted haven of love and connection, which allows us to appreciate and focus on what we have in our lives.”
Shabbat, Goldstein believes, holds a special relevance in today’s world.
“It enables us to momentarily set aside the distractions, demands and pressures of daily life – offering us the time and space to renew our inner selves, and to revisit and reinvigorate our most important relationships.
“Shabbat, he says, “can keep us together in a society where everything seems to be pulling us apart. It is truly a day that G-d gave us to bring inspiration and rejuvenation to our lives. It is also a time that we remind ourselves that G-d is our creator and the creator of everything.”
And thanks to the Shabbat Project, there are countless people across the world starting to keep it together.
People like Halle Faber from Phoenix, Arizona, who kept Shabbat for the first time during the 2014 Shabbat Project
“My family lived too far from the shul to walk, so we stayed home, prayed together, rested, played board games, talked, and enjoyed the simple beauty of the day,” says Faber. “My daughter and I did our first Challah Bake together.”
By the time the 2015 edition came along, they were already ‘Shabbos pros’.
“That year, we walked three miles to shul and three miles back. I volunteered to help with the Challah Bake presentation, and shared the meaning (and fun!) of making challah with nearly 1,000 women and girls.”
The Faber family have been keeping Shabbat ever since.
“We have moved houses. We are now less than four blocks from our shul and actively involved in an amazing Shomrei Shabbat community. No longer a challah novice, last year I was a challah coach! It was another magical experience.”
During the 2018 Shabbat Project, Anthea Friedman from Johannesburg also decided to observe Shabbat for the first time.
“I spent the Shabbat with my sister and her family. A shining set table, delicious food and a special ambience in a very special home. It was a Shabbat that seemed to herald something momentous – knowing that we were part of a greater group of people all over the world all keeping this Shabbat together. It was a Shabbat that left me with a feeling of togetherness, inner peace and spiritual bliss, and just very proud to be Jewish.”
Jose Chataj of Mexico City spent that Shabbat at the city’s Hilton Hotel, which hosted a full 25-hour Shabbaton.
“I discovered that disconnecting from telephones and other media helps us not to think about the material world; that we can be fully present and dedicate ourselves completely to talking face-to-face with others, bringing us closer to our innate spiritual selves.”
He fondly recalls the experience of climbing into bed on Friday night without first turning on the television.
“In my soul there reigned a peace and unconcern that allowed me to rest easily, and I arose the next morning refreshed and with a clear head.
He describes the following day as “spectacular”, and especially loved the meals.
“I have discovered that Shabbat is a gift and not a sacrifice, and I thank the people who insisted I try passing Shabbat differently. It was the first Shabbat I observed and I am sure it will not be the last.”
Aviv Alush, the well-known Israeli actor and singer best known for his role on the hit show, Beauty and the Baker, first heard of the Shabbat Project in 2015.
“I remember telling my wife, ‘Yalla, let’s give it a shot, what do we have to lose?’ And it was just a magical experience – the family bonding, the quiet, the disconnecting. Just one Shabbat, together.”
Last year, Alush helped promote the project across Israel.
“It’s just an amazing initiative. A worldwide Shabbat that all of us keep together – observant, not observant, less connected, more connected. I think there’s something so beautiful and unifying in it.”
Last year was the biggest Shabbat Project to date, reaching more than 1,500 cities worldwide.
The focus in 2019 will be on drawing people to the full, immersive 25-hour Shabbat experience.
Crucially, says Goldstein, the Shabbat Project is not merely about performing a symbolic gesture to acknowledge Shabbat – it involves observing it in full. For the South African chief rabbi, authenticity is everything.
“The call of the Shabbat Project is to keep an entire halachic Shabbat – the way Shabbat has been kept for thousands of years.
“Our approach is predicated on the idea that the real energy of Shabbat – its transformative power – is wholly dependent on immersing oneself in the full Shabbat experience.”
It is also a standard which, somewhat surprisingly, appeals to Jews of all levels of observance and even affiliation.
“We’ve set an ideal and we’ve asked people to aim high. First in South Africa in 2013, and then across the world over the past five years, a remarkable proportion of “first-timers” – far exceeding expectations – have responded enthusiastically, perhaps not despite, but because of, the challenge and uncompromised nature of the Shabbat Project.”
Because it is immersive, the Shabbat Project is potentially life-changing in ways less “demanding” Shabbat initiatives and Jewish literacy programmes often aren’t.
“Over the past six years, through the power of the full Shabbat experience, we’ve seen individuals and communities do great things. Things that before were not thought possible. We’ve seen walls torn down, families rejuvenated, deep feelings awakened, deep friendships formed.
The power of doing that together, all across the Jewish world? Unimaginable.
He calls it “Jumping Together”.
“It’s time for the Jewish world to jump together. To recommit to the grand idea of what it means to be a Jew and find our way forward to a future filled with inspiration and determination, a future that will see us defeat those who seek to destroy our values.”
The “Jumping Together” campaign is in fact a response to rising levels of antisemitism across the globe, and particularly the recent spate of attacks in the US, the deadliest of which took place in Pittsburgh on last year’s Shabbat Project.
“Our strongest and most powerful response to the darkness of Pittsburgh and other recent inhuman attacks is to boldly spread light in the world. To redouble our humanity. We cannot be intimidated or paralysed by the darkness. We mourn and we pray, but we are not defeated or afraid.
“As the Jewish people, we have the power to make change, stop hate, and ignite love. The Shabbat Project is an opportunity to do just that. All we need to do is jump together.
“And when we do that, we move the world.”
Chief Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein
We are weeks away from another historic Shabbat. Under the banner of the Shabbat Project, Jewish communities in more than 1,500 cities around the world are preparing with anticipation and inspiration to welcome in this Shabbat in unprecedented numbers.
Step back and reflect on what that means. It means that there are Jews in every corner of the globe – in Jerusalem and Johannesburg, London and Los Angeles, Melbourne and Moscow, Buenos Aires and Berlin, Tel Aviv and Toronto, Mexico City and Miami, Cape Town and Calgary, Atlanta and Ashkelon, Vilna and Venice, Sao Paulo and Seattle – uniting to keep a complete Shabbat together.
The Shabbat Project will be taking place in cities as diverse as Las Vegas, Leipzig, Memphis, Gibraltar, Tokyo, Montevideo, Tucson, Rome, Milan, Vienna, Cincinnati, Caracas and Abuja. It seems that wherever there are Jews, there is The Shabbat Project.
Perhaps most remarkable is the breadth and diversity of this burgeoning coalition of Shabbat Project Jews spread across six continents separated by geography, by culture, by language. Educational and marketing materials have been published in eight languages: English, French, Hebrew, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, German and Italian. This is a coalition comprising Jews of vastly different levels of observance. There are participants who have been keeping Shabbat their whole lives, and who are very committed to every last detail of halacha. And then there are those who’ve never kept Shabbat before, and even those who have almost no connection to Jewish practice. And all levels in between.
And so, for this year’s Shabbat Project let us once again join hands with our fellow Jews across the world – and let us embark on this exciting journey of keeping a Shabbat together. Let us taste the full Shabbat experience, keeping it the way Jews have it for thousands of years. Let’s keep it together.
We are encouraging people not just to sign up as participants in the Shabbat Project, but to take it one step further – to become official Shabbat Project partners. Contact our partner office in Tel Aviv and you will find a team ready and waiting to help you. We will give you everything you need to bring the Shabbat Project to your community. We will connect you with other partners in your city, and together we will once again create a true people’s movement across the globe.
This is your chance to change your city, and with it, change the world.
The Shabbat Project will be taking place on 16/17 November 2019. To sign up, find out how you can become a partner, or for more for more info, visit: www.theshabbatproject.org/
What participants say:
“How powerful to join together with over one million Jews and gain a greater awareness of the beauty of Shabbat that we are gifted each week. How powerful to deepen connections both in our community and throughout the world. This larger unity is something we pray and hope for every time we move into the end of Shabbat and the beginning of a new week. Particularly on the day when the violent attack in Pittsburgh shattered out hearts and souls, it felt all the more important to stand as a Jewish community with our people all over the world.”
– Barbara Solomon, Dallas
What partners say:
“The Shabbat Project has emerged as an incredible “gateway” experience – a pivotal turning point for people to discover, or rediscover, Jewish heritage and Jewish pride. The beautiful relationships that have been forged, and the way it has set many participants here in Arizona and around the world on the path to a more meaningful and more engaged Jewish life, has been awe-inspiring.”
– Robin Meyerson, Arizona
What prime ministers say:
“The Shabbat Project brings Jews of all ages and backgrounds together from across the globe. By transcending all that divides us, you are helping to strengthen the Jewish people’s shared future.”
– Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel
What pop culture icons say:
“A phenomenal initiative that brings everyone back to their inner happiness, brings Jews together, and preserves our traditions, our families and our sanity.”
– Paula Abdul, multi-award winning US entertainer and American Idol and X Factor judge
What politicians say:
“I was quite taken with what was clearly the growing and deepening sense of community that swept over people as a result of this Shabbat experience. I am very excited that Goldstein and his team have taken the initiative on the road – I think the Jewish world needs the Shabbat Project at this moment in our history.”
– Senator Joe Lieberman, former US Vice Presidential candidate
What people who have seen it all say:
“During the Holocaust, we had dreams things would be better one day, we dreamed of a brighter Jewish future. I never dreamed it could be this much better – that our future could be this bright.”
– Ella Blumenthal (97) survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, and the Majdanek, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps
What the media says:
“The most ambitious Jewish identity initiative ever undertaken”
– Jerusalem Post
“…An experiment that has no precedent in modern Jewish history”
– Mishpacha magazine
– San Diego Tribune
“A global movement”
– Washington Post
“…An international endeavour promoting Sabbath observance across the world.”