JOHANNESBURG – The office is in pandemonium. Bearing a hunted expression, one of its habitants, busy on a call, begins gesticulating wildly as another two phones start to ring.
Another types furiously with one hand while shoveling tuna into her mouth with the other. A bellow comes from the top of the stairs: “Anyone know how to speak Spanish?!” Someone makes a wisecrack but it goes unheeded. Seems nobody even heard it.
No, this isn’t a scene from The Wire or a crack investigative unit plotting the fall of an international crime syndicate. These are the headquarters of the International Shabbos Project, an ambitious attempt to encourage all of world Jewry to observe one Shabbat in October.
And it is from this unassuming Johannesburg office that a core team of around 20 personnel have, since February, been working around the clock, ironing out logistics, creating and refining marketing materials, growing partner networks and securing international celebrity endorsements for what is surely one of the most ambitious Jewish identity initiatives ever undertaken.
The initiative comes on the heels of a smaller- scale “Shabbos Project” last year, spearheaded by South African Chief Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, in which the vast majority of the country’s Jews ended up keeping the Shabbat of October 11-12 in its entirety. It was the first time for most of them.
“In the aftermath, we had so many people writing in from around the world, all wanting to implement the Shabbos Project in their own communities,” says Goldstein.
“We couldn’t turn away from that.”
What they decided on seemed even more far-fetched than the original idea, yet South Africa’s chief rabbi insists it was the next logical step.
“This is how we came up with the idea of an International Shabbos Project – one Shabbat celebrated and kept in full – across the Jewish world, by the entire Jewish people, at the same time.”
There is no doubt it is an outrageously ambitious initiative. Yet already it is looking like a masterstroke. To date, more than 800 Shabbos Project partners from 150 cities around the world have come forward to run the initiative in their cities and communities.
“Crucially, these aren’t just people supporting the Shabbos Project as individuals or pledging to keep Shabbat on their own,” explains Laurence Horwitz, who heads up the above-mentioned central office. “Rather, these are religious and communal leaders, or simply passionate individuals, who have committed to bringing others on board using all resources at their disposal – their community structures, their personal influence, their networks and affiliations.”
Most gratifyingly, the Shabbos Project partners are drawn from across the Jewish world and span the spectrum from strictly Torah-observant to those of a more secular persuasion. There are heads of political movements, communal organizations and student unions. There are chief rabbis and roshei yeshivot. And there are scores of fervent “laymen,” eager to lend a hand in whichever way they can to make the October 23-24 Shabbat a success.
As is to be expected, the majority hail from Israel or North America (including 55 in Jerusalem and 112 in New York), but there are also partners throughout South America, Eastern and Western Europe, Australia, and even Southeast Asia.
The head office team has been tasked with engaging with this international network, and with ensuring their Shabbos Project activities are aligned, well-supported and in step with the spirit and specifics of the Shabbos Project’s core tenets.
“The central office comprises strategists, social media experts, project managers, designers and writers,” says Horwitz. “The idea is to provide our international partners with strategic direction, marketing materials and other support, while overseeing and coordinating the initiative on a global scale.”
This support includes everything from an international website, Facebook page, and standardized content which can be adapted to suit local needs, to a four-part “timeline” laying out the detailed steps for partners to follow in the lead-up to the launch, based on the South African case study.
Needless to say, Horwitz’s team have had their work cut out for them. “Quite frankly, we’ve been amazed at how things have taken off, and we’ve constantly had to bring in new people and marshal additional resources as the partner base has grown.
“To have more than 800 active partners at this early stage is remarkable – and they are continuing to stream forward!” So how did such a vast network develop so quickly? A couple of months back, Goldstein began visiting communities around the world, meeting with local and global Jewish leaders, and telling them about the success of the Shabbos Project pilot in a bid to drum up support for the international version. From these meetings, partners began steadily trickling in.
But it was the release of the Shabbos Project video that turned the trickle into a torrent.
“It’s one thing telling people something, but it’s obviously much more powerful showing it to them,” Horwitz explains. “The video enabled us to showcase the success of last year’s Shabbos Project in South Africa by capturing the deep emotions felt in its wake by people across the community.
“The video has proved to be the spark, setting off a chain reaction across the Jewish world, and inspiring hundreds of partners to come forward.”
Links in the chain
Saj Frieberg is a campus rabbi at Florida’s Miami Dade College, the second-largest tertiary institution in the US. The video brought him to tears, and he immediately wrote in, pledging to support the Shabbos Project in any way he could.
A veteran shabbaton coordinator with an active list of over 150 host families and contacts in Hollywood, Bal Harbour, Boca, Kendall and other cities, Frieberg has promised to put his extensive network at the disposal of the Shabbos Project.
“Any help I can provide in bringing this remarkable initiative to Miami would be a privilege,” he says.
Avremi Joseph, project manager at Jewish House, a community support center based in Sydney, first heard about the success of the Shabbos Project from his friends in South Africa. With the help of community leaders, Rabbi Benji Levy and businessman Jonathan Gavshon, a committee of around 100 members has been set up to coordinate the Shabbos Project across the Australian city.
“I believe this is a project which can inspire and unite not just our own community, but the entire Jewish nation,” says Joseph, “and I’m extremely excited to be involved.”
Based in Leipzig, the Lauder Foundation’s Noah Kunin runs outreach programs for Jewish students throughout Germany. His goal is to get the country’s Jewish student body to keep this one Shabbat together.
“We tend to forget sometimes that the simplest things are the most powerful,” he says.
“Often, we try to attract or impress Jews through modern Jewish ethics, Kabbalah, science and Torah, etc., and we don’t realize that what has carried us through the ages is the simple beauty of our mitzvot. The Shabbos Project may well prove to be a timely reminder of just that.”
Avi Lifschitz of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, is another partner who came forward after seeing the video. Passionate about Jewish outreach, he has established strong relationships with local synagogues and community organizations, and believes the Shabbos Project can transcend denominations and religious factionalism in the area.
“I think the Shabbos Project’s potential is extraordinary,” he says. “Whether one is Reform, Conservative, traditional or whatever, this is the chance to experience something never experienced before, something incredibly valuable and meaningful, which really, anyone can buy into. I mean, who doesn’t want to leave aside their cellphones and iPads and emails and televisions for a day? Who wouldn’t want to enjoy some real peace and quiet, or to connect more meaningfully with those around them? “Of course, people don’t like commitments, but this is a one-off; anyone would be willing to try it. And imagine the achdut, the unity across the Jewish world, among all Jews if we all do.”
Which isn’t to say Lifschitz thinks it is going to be easy.
“South Africa has shown that the Shabbos Project is a successful formula, but I suspect it is going to be more of a challenge applying it in the US. Here, we are more divided along denominational lines.”
There’s also the diplomatic challenge.
“Organizations and institutions need to be willing to put aside narrow interests to help drive a general Jewish unity project of this nature. It’s going to take a certain broad-mindedness and vision to unite on this, and as partners, we will need to think very carefully about how we approach the diverse target groups.”
Of course, diverse doesn’t have to mean divisive. Indeed, diversity is central to what made the Shabbos Project so successful last year, and it is reflected in the extraordinary variety of partners that are emerging this year.
Kids have come forward to champion the Shabbos Project in their schools; partners have surfaced from as far afield as East Africa.
There is a group keeping that Shabbat together in Auschwitz, and another which will be running the Shabbos Project aboard a cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
A Jewish Spring?
“Last year in South Africa,” says Goldstein, “we saw a vast and energetic social movement suddenly spring up overnight, as people from all walks of life spontaneously came forward to take ownership of the Shabbos Project and bring it to life. We seem to be witnessing a similar dynamic this year.”
He goes so far as to call it the beginning of a “Jewish Spring.”
“What usually happens with these kinds of outreach initiatives is that you put together a formal program, which you then have to flog through cold-calling, mass communication, etc. This is different – it has a natural energy.
People are coming forward without prompting and the initiative has now taken on a life of its own. It has become, in essence, a social movement.”
There are, of course, still those with reservations.
But Goldstein says this is to be expected.
“Even in South Africa, people weren’t sure how, or even if things were going to work out, right up until a couple of weeks before. If anything, we are seeing less incredulity this time round. People have now seen that such a thing is possible.”
“The magic that everyone experienced last year in South Africa – that can happen across the Jewish world.”
And come October 24, perhaps it will.