On November 11 and 12, Jews in dozens of countries will participate in the Shabbat Project, an initiative which seeks to unite Jews through the experience of keeping Shabbat. The program, which will celebrate its fourth year, began as a solely South African endeavor at the initiative of the country’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein.
Over its few years of existence, the project has grown tremendously, with people around the world reaching out to the organizers in a bid to get involved.
Last year, 919 cities in 84 countries participated in the event, and Goldstein predicts that this year it will grow even further.
“There are two values at the heart of the project,” Goldstein explains over the phone from his Johannesburg office. Jewish unity is the first, which Goldstein says is often achieved at the height of crisis, when Jews are united by hatred and the force of circumstance. “This [the Shabbat Project] is Jewish unity which is chosen, not because of the hatred of others, but because we are proud to be Jewish and to celebrate Jewish heritage,” he says.
The second value of the project is the heritage of Shabbat, which Goldstein sees as particularly important in this day and age.
“Shabbat has a compelling message for the modern day, because in a world of distraction and fragmentation, it comes with a force of unity that people are craving,” he says, having observed that there is a “natural pull” toward the project.
Taking place toward the end of a year which has seen tension between Orthodox Judaism and other streams of the religion, and particularly between Israel and the US, Goldstein stresses that the Shabbat Project is a “people’s movement,” not an organization endorsed by any specific body.
Though the project’s website states that the project’s concept is to “unite to experience one full Shabbat together, in full accordance with Jewish law,” Goldstein says people may take from it what they will.
“People are drawn to it in their own personal capacities. We put out educational materials, and people take it on to the extent that they feel inspired to do so.
They choose what part of the project they want to connect with,” he says, though he does opine that the experience of a “full Shabbat” is a compelling one.
He reiterates, however, that the project is not institutionally driven and is thus not affiliated with any branch of Judaism. “It belongs to the people, and they can connect to it however they want to,” he says, adding that the initiative strives to move beyond the labels that divide the Jewish world today.
One of the powers of the global Shabbat is its ability to connect Jews, Goldstein says, mentioning the Rae family, who moved from Sydney, Australia, to the tiny town of Fernley, Nevada, home to 19,000 residents. Keli Rae didn’t know that there were any other Jews living in the city, until she decided to take part in the Shabbat Project. She put the word out about the initiative on a Fernley Facebook group, which resulted in a Shabbat dinner at her home with six other families.
Beforehand, when her threeyear- old granddaughter had asked her if there were any other Jews in the world, Rae wasn’t able to show her any evidence in the affirmative. But the Shabbat Project enabled her to introduce her family to dozens of Jewish strangers.
While this relatively small gathering was taking place in the American desert, the big city of Los Angeles had closed off five blocks of Pico Boulevard to host a Shabbat street dinner to 3,000 people. It was billed as one of the largest Shabbat dinners ever.
The project organizers encourage the idea of private events, such as “one kiddush blessing for the whole building, with neighbors whom they may not even know,” Goldstein says.
Big and small, events of this kind will take place once again on November 11 and 12. All materials related to the event, such as posters and Shabbat “toolkits” are translated into eight languages to suit the different communities worldwide.
Goldstein himself will attend a Shabbat lunch in Johannesburg with hundreds of university students. “They are the future of the Jewish people,” he says, emphasizing the importance of that specific gathering. Before Shabbat, he will join a halla bake in Cape Town. “Thousands of women gather for hafrashat halla (separating halla). It draws in people from right across the religious spectrum,” he enthuses.
Last year, the movement estimated than one million people participated in the Shabbat Project.
This year, they expect to surpass that.