We are on the eve of an historic moment for the South African Jewish community. Under the banner of The Shabbos Project, thousands upon thousands of Jews throughout South Africa are preparing to keep the Shabbat of 11/12 October, from sundown to stars out, in all of its halachic detail and splendor.
The breadth and depth of support for The Shabbos Project has been quite astonishing. There has been an outpouring of positive, enthusiastic responses across the entire spectrum of the community. South African Jews of all ages, from all walks of life, across all levels of Jewish observance and involvement, have joined hands to keep Shabbat together – most for the very first time in their lives.
A vast and energetic social movement has sprung up in a matter of weeks, as more and more people have spontaneously come forward to take ownership of the initiative and make The Shabbos Project come alive. There are a group of people living in Oaklands, Johannesburg, who have decided to create an outdoor Friday night Shabbat dinner; they are closing off a number of roads and have invited everyone in the area to join them. More than 600 have booked to take part in this enchanting dinner under the stars.. Another family will be hosting a high school reunion with a difference; around 50 former classmates will gather as guests in their home to keep Shabbat together. Student leadership bodies from South Africa’s biggest Jewish day schools have volunteered as ambassadors for The Shabbos Project, creating promotional videos and actively campaigning for the project.
Perhaps most remarkable of all has been “The Great Street Challah Bake” – an event which saw more than 2000 women take to the streets of Johannesburg yesterday evening to make challot and say the appropriate blessing, in preparation for, and in honor of, the big Shabbat. These are far from isolated examples. Inspiring stories are still pouring in of people keeping Shabbat for the very first time, of families uniting and reuniting, of communities coming together, of people going door-to-door to invite the Jewish residents of their streets into their homes.
Why has The Shabbos Project aroused such a massive, far-reaching public response from so many thousands of people? Why has the response been so powerful and so positive? Among the multi-faceted reasons for this social phenomenon, one, I think, is that Shabbat has a particular power and resonance for our times. It brings people together in an age of fragmentation and alienation; in particular, Shabbat holds Jewish families together in a society where everything seems to be pulling us apart. Modern life has become fragmented; we are constantly dragged in different directions by distractions, demands and onerous responsibilities that pile up with increasing speed. We are now dealing with lightning-paced, ubiquitous communication channels, our attentions overwhelmed by the cacophony around us while our lives buckle under the strain. And it’s not just communication, but the entire set-up of our modern world. Families struggle to find time to sit down to a meal together and just talk and be together. We seldom get the chance to “be there” – all there, all at once.
Into a world of fragmentation, Shabbat enters to offers us that chance. On Shabbat, we set aside time to revisit and reinvigorate our most important relationships – with G-d, with our families, with our friends and, actually, with ourselves. It is a nurturing and inspiring haven of love and connectedness in a turbulent world, creating a wonderful, warm, loving atmosphere at the centre of our lives, which is also profoundly refreshing. Of course, there is the good food, sound sleep and deep relaxation we look forward to, but there’s more. Shabbat restores us, not just in a physical sense, but emotionally and spiritually as well, so that we emerge on Saturday night as new human beings ready to face the week with all of its challenges and opportunities.
And yet, on the eve of this historic Shabbat, as momentum builds, and South African Jews ride an unprecedented wave of inspiring energy, one senses that there is something else, perhaps deeper and more profound that in some way explains what is happening. You know that feeling when you have been away from someone whom you really love and know well – an old friend or relative whom you haven’t seen for a long time – and with whom you are then reunited? At that moment of reunion, an amazing emotion is generated which touches both of you in a way that is so profound and moving; an intimacy is re-established in an instant, and it as if you had never been apart.
There endures a deep and loving friendship between the Jewish people and Shabbat, a friendship that is deeply embedded in our national psyche. This emotional connection to Shabbat is reflected in the words of an ancient song traditionally sung on Friday night. “Mah Yedidut menuchatech” – “how beloved a friend is your rest!” The Shabbos Project is helping South African Jewry rekindle that friendship, reacquainting us with the precious gift we first received from our Creator, millennia ago.
The remarkable outpouring of energy, love and emotion seen in South Africa in the weeks and days leading up to this Shabbat is, I believe, simply an instinctive response; it is driven by the heightened sense of anticipation we all feel ahead of an emotional reunion with a trusted old friend; a friend who has brought joy and comfort, strength and inspiration, faith and renewal, to our people throughout the ages; a G-d-given friend who is an indelible part of our heritage, and an invaluable gift for our times.
The Shabbos Project is a watershed moment for South African Jewry. From what we’ve already witnessed, it may even point the way forward as a model for Jews around the world. Shabbat’s message is powerful and transformative, the practical difference it can make to individuals and communities, incalculable. With its obvious, universal appeal, Shabbat can also be a force for unity, bringing all kinds of Jews together, directing us towards a vibrant Jewish future.