South African Jews unite for Shabbat Project

Jews in 1,685 cities and 106 countries across the world took part in Shabbat Project activities.

A SIGN at The Shabbat Project-sponsored concert event in Johannesburg (photo credit: RACHEL WOLF)
A SIGN at The Shabbat Project-sponsored concert event in Johannesburg
(photo credit: RACHEL WOLF)
Unity and pride were the unofficial themes last week of The Shabbat Project weekend in South Africa. Locals in Cape Town and Johannesburg (or Joburg, as they call it) used those words to describe the South African Jewish community.
Yet, despite the unity, there is still a sibling-like rivalry between the two cities that leaks into its Jewish community. However, no matter whom you ask, they say it does not divide the people. They are united, they say.
I saw that firsthand from November 15 to 16, when I traveled to South Africa to experience Shabbat through The Shabbat Project.
The Shabbat Project was founded in South Africa and, according to its website, strives to get Jews across the world to observe Shabbat. This year’s program was the largest yet, with Jews in 1,685 cities and 106 countries across the world celebrating the special day.
Throughout the weekend, South African Chief Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, the founder and director of The Shabbat Project, repeated the same sentence: “Shabbos belongs to every Jew.”
He said that the Jewish soul naturally connects with Shabbat.
Goldstein was there at the start of The Shabbat Project, and proudly spoke at Sydenham-Highlands North Hebrew Congregation of the project’s success.
“The growing numbers of people participating and the passionate level of engagement demonstrate the Jewish people’s connection to the values of Shabbat – faith, family, community and unity,” Goldstein said. “This past Shabbat, we showed the world – and ourselves – who we truly are.”
Days before the planned worldwide Shabbat, Palestinian Islamic Jihad shot rockets at Israel, hitting highways and homes. White City Shabbat, a Shabbat Project partner in Israel, opened its dinner in Tel Aviv to the people living in southern Israel under nonstop rocket fire.
Spending a weekend in the birthplace of this movement was eye-opening. It showed off not only what made the South African Jewish community unique, but also why The Shabbat Project was started there.
The first thing you notice in South Africa is the distinct mix of the colonial Dutch past and its African roots.
Upon arriving in Johannesburg I was greeted with a combination of heavily accented English, at least to my American ears, with a mix of African dialects. The country wears its history on its sleeve, though it isn’t necessarily proud of all of it.
I arrived in Cape Town and was whisked off to a tall office building in the middle of the Sea Point area, where I saw Table Mountain and African nature that seemed to come out of National Geographic mixed into a modern, distinctly European city.
At my first stop, I saw something familiar: university students setting up for Shabbat dinner. I had done the same thing at American University through Hillel many times.
The South African dinner was sponsored by Ohrsom Student, an organization affiliated with Ohr Somayach. They said they were expecting 50 people for dinner, though that number could grow. They were excited at the prospect of more guests.
SHABBAT PROJECT weekend was expected to be a big weekend for them and the Jews of South Africa.
As they passed out plates and cups, the students discussed a protest they were planning against a resolution proposing the university boycott all Israeli universities associated with the IDF. The resolution has been in talks for the last four years, and now it was coming up for a vote again.
Tarryn Skudicky, an adviser to Ohrsom Student who grew up in Johannesburg and now lives in Cape Town, told me The Shabbat Project strengthened the connection between Cape Town and Joburg Jews. The Shabbat Project is famous in South Africa, she told me.
“There’s somewhat of a joke that it’s a chag [holiday],” she said. “People will go up to each other and say ‘Chag Shabbat Project Sameach’ [Happy Shabbat Project Holiday].”
That night at a Shabbat Project-sponsored concert in Cape Town, multiple people came up to us and said exactly that.
Zusha, a hassidic band from New York, headlined concerts in Cape Town and Joburg. It clearly had a following in both cities. Watching the crowd of observant Jews dance is something that many would not expect to see, but that’s what The Shabbat Project is about. The concert in Joburg was similar; Jews of all walks of life came together.
Challa-baking workshops are one of the most beloved traditions of the weekend. This year, for the first time, The Shabbat Project sent boxes and proposed that people go on “challa dates.” The boxes held enough ingredients for two people, and were meant to encourage small gatherings.
The challa bake at the Herzlia Weizmann Primary School in Cape Town was a microcosm of the South Africa Jewish community.
Mothers in jeans and tank tops mixed with mothers with head coverings and skirts – the divide between observant and less observant Jews seemed nonexistent. There were even some dads there, too.
While many South African Jews define themselves as Orthodox, there are those who keep most of the traditions and those who do not. Rather than an Orthodox/Conservative/Reform dynamic, in South Africa the difference is between those who are shomrei mitzvot (keepers of the commandments) and those who are not.
Having grown up in the US, this kind of divide was completely foreign to me.
My first taste of a Joburg Shabbat was Friday night, which I spent with Goldstein and his family. We started at the local Chabad, where I was greeted with long kiddush tables with tall bottles of whiskey for after services, but it didn’t end there. Before services began, we stood in the courtyard where adults drank beer and mixed cocktails, while the kids played soccer.
Inside the Chabad were services for adults, teens and children of all ages. I started in the adult service, but later moved to the young adults service; I wanted to see all the synagogue had to offer. On my way to the second service, I passed by the Shabbat services for children.
The young adults’ passion for Judaism at such a young age – many of them appeared to be in high school – was clear. One boy gave a dvar Torah – an interpretation of that week’s Torah portion – that focused on the situation in Israel. He said that several of his friends who were living in Israel agreed that while the situation was difficult, the best victory was living life as usual.
After services I walked with the rabbi and his family to Shabbat dinner. On our way, I had a chance to speak with him about the community and his role in non-Jewish South African life.
He told me about speaking out against then-president Jacob Zuma. He said it wasn’t hard for him to decide to speak out against Zuma’s corruption, but that there were those who thought he put the Jewish community in danger.
Not only did the rabbi found The Shabbat Project, he also founded an organization called Community Active Protection, which monitors Joburg. According to the rabbi, the organization has lowered crime by about 85%. CAP doesn’t just operate in Jewish areas; there are other places in Joburg that call on it for assistance.
In addition to CAP, Jews in Joburg and Cape Town are protected by an organization called Community Security Organization, whose highly trained security staff protects the communities from possible terrorist and antisemitic attacks. Anywhere the rabbi goes, a CSO guard is there, too. These same guards can be found also in front of synagogues and Jewish schools.
When we arrived at Wynberg’s home I was in awe. They welcomed guests with open arms, including me, despite the fact that we had never met. They set a large table with no shortage of food, and there was even a bar set up in the courtyard.
There were other special guests at the table, including the Zusha band. Shlomo Gaisin, the lead singer of the band, gave a toast and spoke of the meaning of Shabbat.
While in Joburg, I stayed with the Porter family and saw a different side of the South African Jewish community. In Cape Town, the community was small and mostly observant, but the Jews of Joburg were greater in numbers and variations of observance.
On Saturday morning, the Porters took me to their shul, and it was surprisingly familiar. It reminding me of the synagogue I attended growing up in New York. Maybe its Brooklyn-native rabbi had something to do with it.
I sat in the women’s section, and while I grew up going to shuls with mixed seating, I felt at home. The tunes were familiar, and so was the after-shul kiddush. While the adults stood inside chatting and eating, the kids played cricket with empty soda bottles.
“If this is what my kids know about Shabbat,” Benjoy Porter said pointing to the boys playing, “then I’m happy with that.” He remarked that normally they would be staring at their phones or playing video games, and how nice it was to see them outside.
At the Porter’s lunch table I chatted with an observant rabbi, a woman who drove to the lunch and everyone else who fell somewhere in between. There was no guilt, no judgment. They were all there together as Jews.
After a day in Cape Town and Shabbat in Joburg, one thing was for sure: The Shabbat Project could have started only in South Africa.
The atmosphere of unity is the secret sauce that makes Shabbat accessible for Jews across the spectrum of observance.
The writer was a guest of The Shabbat Project.