Jewish woman lights the Shabbat candles 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)
Allow me to share with you a few of the many remarkable stories that have
emerged from The Shabbos Project, which, three weeks ago, brought together tens
of thousands of South African Jews to properly keep the entire Shabbat – many
for the first time. Here is a very moving letter I received soon after that
Dear Chief Rabbi, My name is Tamryn Scheepers. I work at King
David Linksfield Primary School [one of the largest Jewish day schools in
Johannesburg], as an Afrikaans and sports teacher. I would like to share my
experience of keeping Shabbos this weekend.
I am a Christian but have
recently learned more about my family history. My [maternal] grandmother is
French and was born during World War 2 near Calais in the northern area of
Her mother’s family was Jewish (their surname Isaac), but because
of the German occupation of France, they could not announce their religion, and
my grandmother was brought up as a Catholic...
I decided to take part in
‘keeping it together’ after experiencing the ‘Challah Street Bake’ in Glenhazel
[Johannesburg] on Thursday night.
The amazing atmosphere in the streets
was filled with kindness and the fun of sharing it with friends and family. This
special brocha (yes, I have learnt some Hebrew, too), was too special not to
I went to Sydenham Shul on Friday night with a work colleague. The
one thing I learned from keeping Shabbos was that it forces you to rest and
connect. The project has been so inspiring. I have a better knowledge of what
family means, what religion means and what it means to love yourself.
did this project for myself and I have learnt that I can challenge myself to do
things. I feel rejuvenated and reborn and full of life to share with my loved
Thank you for this amazing and spiritual journey I was able to
THIS WEEK, I spoke to Tamryn, and she told me that she now
knows that in halachic terms she is Jewish. She and her mother are inspired and
excited to continue the journey of rediscovering their Jewish heritage, and they
plan to visit Israel in the near future. Tamryn says she feels that G-d directed
her to become a teacher at the King David School so that she could reconnect
with her Jewish heritage.
I was immediately reminded of a story related
by the late Dayan I. Grunfeld of the London Beth Din rabbinic court of what an
eyewitness told him he saw on a train to the Nazi death camps: “The train
dragged on with its human freight. Pressed together like cattle in the crowded
trucks, the unfortunate occupants were unable even to move. The atmosphere was
stifling. As the Friday afternoon wore on, the Jewish men and women in the Nazi
transport sank deeper and deeper into their misery.
“Suddenly an old
Jewish woman managed with a great effort to move and open her bundle.
Laboriously she drew out – two candlesticks and two hallot. She had just
prepared them for Sabbath when she was dragged from her home that morning. They
were the only things she had thought worthwhile taking with her. Soon the
Sabbath candles lit up the faces of the tortured Jews and the song of Lecha Dodi
transformed the scene. Sabbath with its atmosphere of peace had descended upon
The Jewish people with our G-d-given Shabbat ultimately
prevailed over Nazi savagery.
This miraculous victory is symbolized by
the story of Tamryn Scheepers, whose grandmother was raised Catholic because the
Nazis sought to eradicate Jews and Judaism.
And yet a single Shabbat had
the power to reverse 60 years of history.
Trying to comprehend the impact
of Tamryn’s dramatic story, I came across a less dramatic and yet profound email
from Dan Chaitowitz, describing a scene in his Johannesburg home on the eve of
The Shabbos Project: “Apart from the timeless clock, there sits a calendar upon
the wall. The Lunar it beamed. And he read the word slowly like a kid reader,
‘le’ech lech ah.’ And he said, ‘Yes, lech lecha. This weekend is the big Shabbos
Project and on this weekend all the Jews in South Africa will hopefully attempt
to ‘keep’ the Sabbath.’ “There was a silence as he dragged his finger across the
calendar in thought and then he grinned and said, ‘Oh, so it’s like the Jews
will jump up at the same time, and hopefully the Earth will shift off its
axis?’” And in a certain sense that is what happened, that on Shabbat Parshat
Lech Lecha we all jumped together and the earth did shift off its axis for South
African Jewry. The Gemara describes how the great sounds accompanying the giving
of the Torah were heard from the one end of the world to the other; that the
world shook as Hashem gave us His most precious treasure. Three weeks ago, South
Africa shook, as the transformative power of Shabbat changed our community
Tamryn’s story is emblematic of Shabbat’s power to reshape
Jewish history and alter the course of Jewish destiny. But there are many other
South African Jews whose lives have shifted off their own personal axis as a
result of “just one Shabbos.”
Stories continue to pour in, capturing the
emotional and spiritual transformative impact of keeping Shabbat. Stories like
that of Kim Tobias: “It [The Shabbos Project] set off a community spirit as good
as the World Cup Rugby or Soccer World Cup mania. But a lot more spiritual and a
lot more meaningful to the soul. We have never kept Shabbos before, and it
sounded quite daunting, but we wanted to take on a challenge of this nature and
try encourage whoever we could to come along for the ride. Our first phone call
came from a neighbor who wanted to do a street party for the neighborhood.
Within three days the neighborhood heard about this idea and clambered together
to have 18 family neighbors from around the Linksfield North area. The spirit of
the Shabbos Project came alive for all of us and we all had cold shivers and
goosebumps when the kids said the Kiddush.
We even got to bensch [recite
Grace] after the meal underneath the starlit evening sky. What a moment in our
lives. It will be remembered forever.”
Many other such emails and video
testimonies (www.theshabbosproject.com) tell of lives deeply touched by keeping
Shabbat for the very first time.
Lisa Mervis wrote: “The most profound
part for my husband and I was the sense of unity and togetherness we felt as a
family. When we came downstairs on Shabbos morning, our kids were playing a
board game instead of watching TV as they usually are. We walked home from shul
with special friends and hung out as a family all day, really engaging with each
other because there were no electronics to distract us. The sense of peace I
experienced from the minute I woke up until Saturday night was like being away
for the weekend. I can see how powerful the impact of a Shabbos is for a
family... It [The Shabbos Project] gave us the opportunity to experience
Shabbos, which is something we never would have tried to do. I look forward to
doing it again.”
From these personal stories emerges an even greater
universal story of Shabbat’s transformative power. From the beginning of time,
G-d intertwined Shabbat into the very fabric of the universe. Its awesome power
is part of our reality, and connects with our souls in a profound and moving
way. These ideas resonate deeply as expressed by the many emails that have come
in from Jewish communities around the globe requesting assistance to replicate
The Shabbos Project in their cities.
In response to these entreaties an
international organization is being established to facilitate and direct The
Shabbos Project in communities around the world on Shabbat Parshat Lech Lecha
2014. Let us all jump together and shift the Jewish world off its
The writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.