As the week draws to a close this Friday afternoon, hundreds of thousands of secular Israelis throughout the country will be joining their more observant compatriots in observing one complete Shabbat as part of the Shabbat Project.
Beach versus Beit Haknesset. Clubbing versus Kiddush. Irritation over the absence of public transportation versus consternation over the presence of cars.
In other words, just an ordinary Shabbat in Israel.
But now, these dichotomies are about to be ditched – at least for 25 hours. On October 24-25, scores of cities across Israel will be joining Jewish communities in 350 cities around the world to observe one complete Shabbat together as part of the Shabbat Project.
At the moment, there’s no escaping it. Giant 30-meter billboards have been erected across Israel’s busy thoroughfares, including the Ayalon Highway – the main route into Tel Aviv – traversed by a million Israelis each day. Meanwhile, hundreds of Egged buses have been emblazoned with Shabbat Project branding.
In a matter of three weeks, the Shabbat Project Israel Facebook page has accumulated more than 50,000 followers.
Internet content on sites such as Ynet has reached 1.5 million Israelis, and all of the country’s major TV channels and radio stations have devoted coverage to the project.
Well-known Israeli celebrities have clambered on board, including Oshri Cohen, Yana Yosef, Saray Givaty, Aviv Alush and Maya Buskila. President Reuven Rivlin has endorsed the initiative, as has Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky. The Rami Levy supermarket chain is even offering a “challah for NIS 1, wine for NIS 5” special this week.
On the Shabbat itself, hundreds of thousands of secular Israelis are expected to observe a full Shabbat, most for the first time in their lives.
“Finally, I will not work on the Shabbat and my brothers will not work on Shabbat,” says Tal Pap. “We will make a meal together – all four brothers sitting around the same table for the first time since our parents passed away.”
Caroline Petori will be joining her son and his wife’s ultra-Orthodox family for a Shabbat in Beit Shemesh, while Sigalit Leshem Block’s dream is to celebrate one Shabbat together with her entire extended but scattered family.
“My young children do not know their aunts and uncles or even their own grandparents,” says Block. “This Shabbat, we will all be together in Israel at my parents’ home with our big family. And when we sit down for the meals as one family, we will sing Shabbat songs and talk and be together!” Ruthie Gulbary’s objectives are simpler: “I’d love to do one Shabbat without TV; with just my husband and my two small children, playing board games and puzzles, reading stories, maybe unpacking the hand-puppets I bought long ago, which have not yet been used.”
For Gili Reuveni, it is such moments that make life worth living. “I’m a secular Jew but I really identify strongly with this Shabbat initiative. We need to stop running the race of life and cherish what we have, devoting time to what is important. These are the things we will regret one day if we don’t, and cherish if we do.”
That Israelis across the seemingly unbreachable secular/religious divide have embraced the Shabbat Project certainly wasn’t something taken for granted; far from it, in fact.
“In countries outside of Israel, secular Jews generally have no major issue with religion – there isn’t much negativity,” explains Robby Nissan, a campaign manager involved with the Shabbat Project who has worked with some of Israel’s biggest brands. “Those who aren’t religious nevertheless respect those who are, and being among the minority and maybe feeling more of a push to assert their Jewish identity, are usually involved in the Jewish community to some degree. Here, you can present an idea like the Shabbat Project, and 70 or 80 percent of secular Jews will say, ‘Yes, why not?’” In Israel, says Nissan, who is himself secular, there is an actual antipathy.
“Religious people are seen as the ones who refuse to go to the army, who always ask us to put on tefillin or make a minyan.
Secular Israelis don’t want to be coerced into religious observance, and are on their guard when it comes to anything that looks even slightly like kiruv [ Jewish outreach].”
Assaf Fassy – a “new media” marketing guru and the mastermind behind Israel’s Shabbat Project social media campaign – says the team immediately recognized that the “Keeping It Together” campaign in Israel would need to be quite different from those being executed elsewhere in the Jewish world.
“In Israel, we don’t really have any existing infrastructure to work with. Secular Israelis don’t typically belong to synagogues or Jewish community centers or the like. We decided, therefore, that the only way to ‘bring people in’ was to approach them as individuals, and to use the opportunity for direct communication afforded by the Internet, and by social networks in particular.”
Social media is one thing, but people agreeing to turn their usual routines upside-down – even for one day – is another. As Nissan puts it, “this is not like tipping an ice bucket over your head.”
Enter Sefi Shaked – an internationally renowned ad man, and the brains behind some of Israel’s most innovative and celebrated campaigns. This year, he decided to join forces with Nissan on perhaps the most challenging undertaking of his career.
“The thing with the Shabbat Project,” Shaked explains, “is that it requires a total commitment, which is a difficult ask, because nobody – least of all a hard-nosed secular Israeli – wants to be restricted.”
Yet the message they’ve put across is that it is the restrictions themselves which are ultimately liberating.
“Of course not everyone is religious, but there are certain aspects that come with observing Shabbat which anyone can enjoy and connect to immediately – taking a stroll down the street with your wife and without your smartphone, enjoying meals with your family without the TV in the background, experiencing quiet, human moments without the encroachment of technology.”
A key element of the campaign has been the recently launched #KeepingIt- Together mobile application – packed with everything “first-timers” need to know about Shabbat observance, and programmed to put users’ phones to sleep over Shabbat. Once on Shabbat “sleep mode,” a pair of candles are displayed on the screen, which are “extinguished” if the phone is picked up, whereupon a message comes up with the words, “chaval [what a waste] – you only enjoyed part of the gift.”
“The app is really fun and interactive, with recipes, games and Torah content with interesting contemporary analysis,” says Nissan. “We’ve also tried to veer away from negative terminology, focusing on what people should do, as opposed to what they shouldn’t.”
As popular as the Keeping It Together app has been, it is the Facebook page that has been the nucleus of the campaign, springing up almost overnight and drawing followers from across Israeli society.
“Judging by the posts and comments on our page, there seems to be a genuine excitement, almost a euphoria, about this coming Shabbat,” says Fassy. “Here are 50,000 mainly secular Israelis saying, ‘We want to be part of the Jewish world’.”
Nissan says he has been left “stunned” by the response.
“When we first met, I told Goldstein: You can’t solve 2,000 years of friction and mistrust with one Shabbat and a few hundred-thousand shekels – but I may have been wrong.
“Going through our Facebook feed, I’ve come to realize that in every secular Jew, there is a deep yearning to be part of the history and the heritage, to connect to the sacred traditions that make us Jewish. And who doesn’t want one day of relief from the rat race and the screens to focus on family and community?” The plan, he says, is to keep the dialogue going throughout the year.
“The Shabbat Project has effectively laid the foundation for a bridge between two worlds. With this database of 50,000 Jews, we will continue to reinforce this bridge and hopefully build some new ones. “ Shaked has also been quite taken by surprise.
“My initial feeling was that in Israel, we don’t need this as much as minorities in other countries – but there seems to be a real hunger and enthusiasm for the Shabbat Project,” he says. “Peoples’ faces light up when we tell them about it.
Everyone wants to be involved in some way – not just in observing the Shabbat, but in coordinating events and helping us get the message out there.”
As a result, halla bakes, havdalah concerts and Shabbat programs are springing up around the country. The largest events are taking place in cities such as Modi’in, Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and there are scores of others happening in smaller towns and communities.
“New events are emerging by the hour,” says Fassy. “And it’s all happening organically.
We’re not initiating anything – we just support and coordinate and let people do their thing.”
Though an avowed secularist, Shaked – who will be spending the Shabbat with his colleagues on the Shabbat Project team and a few of their religious friends – has unearthed surprising passion and affinity for an ancient Torah precept.
Even so, it is the unity aspect of the project that he, and so many other Israelis, have found most appealing.
“Robby [Nissan] and I first met with Rabbi [Warren] Goldstein [South Africa’s chief rabbi and the originator of the Shabbat Project] in the middle of the Gaza war. Sirens interrupted our first meeting. This was a time when Israelis felt cut off, isolated from the rest of the world. A couple of weeks later, I was working in the UK and found myself caught up in a pro-Palestinian rally with distinct anti-Semitic undertones. I felt the same isolation, the same vulnerability, the same need to connect.”
This was the moment he decided to get involved.
“I think more than anything else, Israelis are embracing the Shabbat Project as an act of solidarity with Jews around the world – as an antidote to the isolation and a counteractive measure against the tide of hatred.”
Joyce Fischler, who helped get the Shabbos Project off the ground in Israel, shares these sentiments.
“As we’ve seen over the past few trying months, Israeli people are craving unity right now,” she says. “The country’s stressful security situation means everyone is constantly on guard. Add this to the fact that Israelis work 14-15 hours a day, and lead busy after-work lives, and you’ve got a nation of people gasping for air.
“Shabbat is that air. It provides serenity and a spiritual refuge that people are unlikely to get anywhere else. The Shabbat Project is a gift to Israelis – and from what we are seeing, it’s a gift they are embracing.”
Fischler also sees the divisions in Israeli society as far less significant than many people realize.
“We only ever see the outliers, the extremists, whoever shouts louder,” she explains. “I think the majority of Israelis get along with each other and respect their neighbors. And I think the Shabbat Project will dismantle these boundaries still further.”
Goldstein arrived in Tel Aviv last Sunday, his minor jet-lag evaporating at the sight of Shabbat Project bus banners and billboards, as he was whisked away to a series of back-to-back appointments and media interviews. Right now, the “Chief,” as he is affectionately known, couldn’t be prouder – of his little project, and of the primordial “rainbow nation” that is joining together throughout the world on Parshat Noach to celebrate it.
“The way in which all manner of Jews in Israel have embraced the Shabbat Project is just so inspiring,” he gushes.
“Even just looking at some of the comments posted on the Facebook page, I was profoundly moved.”
For Goldstein, this is conventional wisdom being turned on its head; a demonstration that Jews of all persuasions can join together to celebrate an aspect of Jewish heritage that is as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago when it was first presented to a nation of desert nomads.
“I think what we are seeing here in Israel, and throughout the world, is a thirst for Jewish unity and Jewish values, and specifically a thirst for Shabbat itself; for one day a week on which we can free ourselves from the screens and communication channels, and all the extraneous stuff that overwhelms our lives and pulls us away from one another.
“This Shabbat, there are no hilonim [seculars] or haredim or knitted kippot.
This Shabbat, we are just Jews keeping it together.”