Earlier this month in South Africa, in defiance of almost everybody’s expectations, against all sober-minded forecasts, something extraordinary happened. Tens of thousands of South African Jews of all backgrounds and levels of Jewish observance joined together to keep a Shabbat.
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.
This was “The Shabbos Project” – an astonishingly ambitious initiative introduced this year by South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, and whose motto, “Keeping it together”, touched a common chord within the diverse South African Jewish community.
Numbers do not tell the full story. They don’t capture the enchanted, slightly surreal atmosphere, the emotional charge, the unbridled sense of triumph. But they are staggering enough.
Early estimations are that more than 30,000 South African Jews, almost half of the community, kept the Shabbat of 11/12 October in its entirety, or as the eight-point manifesto at the hub of The Shabbos Project puts it, “from sundown to stars out, in all of its halachic details and splendor.”
Many of South Africa’s arena-sized synagogues reported capacity turnouts – crowds exceeding those of Kol Nidrei and first night Rosh Hashana – and almost eerily empty parking lots.
Immediately after Shabbat, more than 6,000 gathered at free open-air “havdalah concerts” in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and on the Thursday evening before Shabbat, almost 3,000 women participated in the “Great Street Challah Bake,” flooding the streets of Johannesburg to prepare challah dough.
This latter event had passersby gawking in disbelief, the owner of a local bakery remarking that it was “the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.” Robyn Smookler, one of the organizers of the Great Street Challah Bake, took to Facebook, awestruck at just how big her little event had become.
“Today I witnessed two tons of flour being sifted and packaged into one-kilogram bags... the packaging of thousands of containers of oil, sugar and other ingredients... the arrival of thousands of bowls, thousands of spoons and hundreds of jugs. I witnessed brothers and sisters of Africa working together in complete joy and unity to make magic happen, and I witnessed the kindness and unity that our South African Jewish community is famous for! Each day I sense God’s presence in the world. Today it felt extra powerful.”
Perhaps just as remarkably, hundreds of residents of Oaklands, Johannesburg, gathered together in the streets of the suburb for a massive Friday night “dinner under the stars.”
The idea was put forward by Clive Blechman, chairman of the local synagogue.
“I told people I wanted to have a Shabbat dinner in my front yard, and the idea caught fire... except the front yard became the entire street, and a handful of families from the shul quickly became 600 people from the wider area.”
In the end, Blechman was forced to turn away around 200 people.
“It looked like a protest march, as what seemed like the entire suburb converged on my house after shul.
Non-Jewish residents seemed confused, but intrigued. It was a strange, beautiful experience. People phoned afterwards to say how they had been touched by the atmosphere of togetherness, and how thrilling it was to have had dinner with their families while sitting in the street!”
The “Ohr Somayach” shul in Cape Town hosted 200 extra people in addition to the “regular” Shabbat crowd, among them a local pop star. Another popular performer, Israeli singer/songwriter Yonatan Razel, led the Kabbalat Shabbat service, and a back room had to be opened up to accommodate the spillover. Those unaccustomed to Shabbat observance were set up for meals with host families from the community.
“I was personally moved in a way that I have not been for a long time,” said Rabbi Dani Brett, educational director at Ohr Somayach Cape Town. “I was quite surprised at how different my own Shabbat was. I have heard the same from many others – colleagues, family members, friends and congregants. And although all the people who expressed this to me are of varying Jewish observance, and their emotional and spiritual spaces are not the same at all, across the board there was a sense of sharing and of emotional depth that was uncanny in its similarity.”
The shared experiences and the spirit of unity were palpable and pervasive throughout the Shabbat. Unsurprisingly, though, it is the smaller, more personal stories that have really captured the imagination.
In the affluent beach-side suburb of Camps Bay in Cape Town, one family had 30 guests around their Shabbat lunch table who were new to keeping Shabbat. They went around the table, each sharing their Shabbat experiences.
It took an hour and a half.
Another Johannesburg family hosted a high school reunion with a difference, as around 50 former classmates gathered as guests in their home to keep Shabbat together. A group of South African students studying at the IDC college in Herzliya heard about The Shabbos Project, and decided to keep Shabbat together.
A grade nine pupil at King David Linksfield, South Africa’s largest Jewish Day School, said he couldn’t think of a single one of his peers who wasn’t keeping that Shabbat.
“My children were so enthusiastic and I must commend the organizers for actively involving the Jewish Day schools – I think this was the key to families buying into the initiative,” says Gayle Landau, whose own family was keeping Shabbat for the first time. Now that she has kept Shabbat once, she says the thought of doing it again is not as daunting – made even less daunting by what, for her, was an overwhelmingly joyous experience.
“On our walk to shul on Friday night we were met by our neighbors, and it was so wonderful to shout out ‘Shabbat Shalom!’ in the streets of Johannesburg. It was an especially beautiful sight to see so many families walking together to shul. It amazed me how the shul kept filling up yet there was somehow room for us all.”
Monique Shlagman had a similar experience at her own synagogue.
“Many people go to shul on the high holy days because that is what you have to do. This, however, was just an ordinary Shabbat. It wasn’t something we had to do, or were even expected to do. It was something we wanted to do. People I would never expect took part – my mother-in-law, for instance, who hasn’t been to shul on Shabbat for nearly eight years.”
Brett, who also runs a number of city-wide Jewish literacy programs in Cape Town, bears this out.
“In the week leading up to that Shabbat, I had conversations with the most unlikely people concerning intricacies and minutiae of practical Shabbat observance. I had to ask myself a number of times that week, ‘Did I really just have that conversation?’ ‘Did that really just happen?’”
SO |HOW did it happen? Initially, most people were understandably sceptical about The Shabbos Project. Reflecting on the conference held in August to get the country’s rabbinical leaders on the same page and co-ordinate launch activities, many rabbis have admitted they were only humoring Goldstein.
Right up until around mid-September, it looked as if the skeptics were right. People seemed either disinterested in the project or unaware of it. Then, says Goldstein, almost overnight, “a vast and energetic social movement suddenly sprung up, as people spontaneously came forward to take ownership of the The Shabbos Project and bring it to life.”
It prompted a mystified Dan Ariely – the Israeli-American professor of psychology and behavioral economics whose conversation with Goldstein back in 2012 sparked the idea for The Shabbos Project – to send out a survey last Friday, to find out just what was on people’s minds – where they were coming from, what was motivating them. Ariely, the author of The New York Times
best-seller Predictably Irrational, remains intrigued and is intent on getting to the bottom of it.
Goldstein has his own thoughts on the phenomenon.
In addition to citing the mystical and historical connection between Shabbat and the Jewish people, he maintains that Shabbat observance brings communal spirit, family togetherness and inner calm to the alienation, fragmentation and gadget saturation of our 21st-century lives.
There is no doubt that an effective media campaign also played a significant role.
A popular Facebook page posted hundreds of video endorsements from South African Jews across the spectrum – among them South Africa’s former opposition leader in parliament, a well-known local celebrity and one of the country’s most beloved comedians.
Billboards and banners adorned the streets of suburbs and highways in South Africa’s four main cities. An “Unofficial guide to keeping Shabbos,” authored by the chief rabbi’s wife, Gina Goldstein, escorted first-time Shabbat observers through all the various halachic details, while a “Shabbat toolkit” gave people an enriched understanding of Shabbat practices.
There are also, undoubtedly, important sociological factors. The South African Jewish community is a fiercely and famously traditional one, of which around 90 percent are affiliated with Orthodoxy. Even those who are not observant attend Orthodox synagogues and send their children to Orthodox schools. These institutions became actively involved in The Shabbos Project, and were vocal in encouraging people to participate.
“Our schools and shuls have been amazing partners in The Shabbos Project,” says Goldstein, “supporting their students and congregants by arranging activities, meals and educational programs to make the Shabbos experience enjoyable and inspiring.”
Brett echoes these sentiments. He believes that while the steady increase in Jewish observance, education and awareness brought the South African Jewish community to a place from which it was ready for this, the success of The Shabbos Project had a lot to do with a community that has learned to work together for the greater good of all.
“The chief rabbi did what was necessary as a leader,” says Brett. “He envisioned the possibility out of what many others saw as a non-possibility, he communicated that vision to the public as well as to other leaders – lay, professional and rabbinic – and he worked extremely hard to the very end to create communication channels and structural platforms for others to take ownership of the project within the shuls, schools and other community spaces.
“So the historical window opened, the chief jumped through it, everyone followed, and the momentum of the community swept all of us along.”
David Shaw is the community rabbi of Sandton Shul, one of South Africa’s largest congregations. He was one of the few who foresaw the success of The Shabbos Project from the start, which he attributes in no small part to Goldstein’s single-mindedness.
“We have a chief rabbi who is not only wise and sagacious but also an inspiring leader. He understands the community who, in turn, respect him, trust him and are therefore willing to support his many excellent initiatives.
Perhaps most importantly, because the chief rabbi does what he does leshem shamayim
, ‘for the sake of heaven,’ I believe that God will continue to bless all of his community endeavors and ensure they prosper as The Shabbos Project has.”
The question remains, however – was this just a onceoff, or have people made real, sustainable changes to their lives? South African Jews have bottled lightening, but can anything be done with it? Can an entire community change in a day? “The fact that people kept Shabbat just once will profoundly change who they are, and for now, in my opinion, we should leave it at that,” says Brett. “And yes, that way, there will be subtle but substantial changes, such that the Shabbat of Parshat Lech Lecha, 5774, will become a historical before-and-after story for South African Jewry. I’m sure that many are considering their ‘what-now’ step, and many others who are simply cherishing the gift of the experience, owning it, celebrating it. All have been touched.”
Perhaps the most touching aspect of The Shabbos Project is the way it brought observant and non-observant Jews together in a world in which they are drifting further apart.
Of course, national or communal unity is most often a social construct. It feels flat, forced, artificial; something political leaders or sententious television adverts tell us we have. But the unity felt this past Shabbat was real, perhaps because it was anchored in a more personal harmony experienced within homes, within families, and within people’s own inner beings.
As Goldstein puts it, “There is a harmony to Shabbat that allows people to appreciate what they have in their lives; that helps them ‘Keep it together’ in every sense.
Indeed, from all the tributes and testimonies that have been pouring in over the past two weeks, it is clear that those who took part in The Shabbos Project experienced not simply a day of rest, but a day of togetherness.”
Right now, the Jewish World is probably more fragmented than it has ever been. Those in positions of influence are scratching their heads over the largely discouraging Pew Report findings in the US and the ever-growing religious/secular divide in Israel, and many have simply resigned themselves to these “realities.”
There is no doubt the issues are complex and varied – but who knows, perhaps something as simple as an international “Shabbos project” can help unearth common ground.
South Africa has showed that it’s not as far-fetched as it seems.