Is the idea of an entire country in complete repose for an entire Shabbat even remotely possible? At least one man believes it is – and based on the outcomes of his recent Israel excursion, South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein might well be justified in that belief.
Last year, the Shabbat Project, which Goldstein launched the previous year in South Africa, grew to reach Jewish communities in 465 cities and 64 countries around the world.
Unsurprisingly – given its deeply entrenched divisions – Israel has proved a tougher nut to crack than most. But after solid inroads last year, there are signs that the Jewish state is now primed to take its rightful place as the global hub of the Shabbat Project.
In the build-up to last year’s inaugural effort in Israel, the Shabbat Project was endorsed by a swathe of Israeli celebrities, and received widespread airplay via Egged buses, giant highway billboards, national radio and TV spots, print and digital news platforms, and a social media campaign. During the event itself, it is estimated that tens of thousands of secular Israelis throughout the country joined their more observant compatriots in observing one complete Shabbat.
This year, however, the aim is to go one better. Or, to be precise, one or two million better: it is to ensure that – for 25 hours at least – labels are set aside, divisions are ignored, and Shabbat is celebrated everywhere from Metulla to Eilat.
In July, Goldstein traveled across Israel, forging partnerships and canvassing support in an effort to lay the groundwork for the Jewish state to become the global hub of this year’s Shabbat Project.
“Our objective in Israel is not all that different to the general objective of the Shabbat Project, which is simply to enable as many people as possible to keep one Shabbat together,” said Goldstein. “Along the way, we hope to inspire the kind of grassroots involvement that has made the project what it is – and without which it cannot succeed.
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And ultimately, through mass participation in authentic Shabbat experiences, we hope to shift the cultural perception of Shabbat, and forge unity among all Israelis, regardless of race or creed.”
A strong national advertising campaign will once again provide the backbone. The difference this year, however, will be the renewed focus on grassroots efforts from within the various towns and communities throughout Israel.
“In 2014, great strides were made in opening up the idea of one Shabbat observed together and in full and making it not only accessible and palatable, but attractive to Jews of all backgrounds,” said Tanya Greenberg, lead Shabbat Project coordinator in Israel.
“What we want to do this year is go beyond the publicity campaigns and open up the experience itself – making Shabbat tangible.”
Activities are slated to take place at a suburban, neighborhood and street level, and will include challah bakes, huge family dinners, joint festive prayer services, neighborhood walks, children’s activities, joint havdala events and more. Rather than being “topdown” and organization-driven, according to Greenberg, they will be run by volunteers on the ground and be entirely organic to their communities.
“The goal,” she said, “is to have people coming out of their homes, meeting their neighbors, observant and not, and spending Shabbat together – literally throughout the country.
Many of the partnerships were forged over the course of Goldstein’s trip this summer.
District leaders were the first item of business.
“We met with scores of mayors and municipalities up and down the country. And everywhere we went, we were received enthusiastically and offered concrete pledges of support,” said Greenberg.
The mayors of Ashkelon, Ariel, Rehovot, Safed, Netanya and Sderot, for example, have all endorsed the Shabbat Project, offering support in the form of billboards and advertising space, general publicity and the use of public venues, as well as dedicated project managers to run the event in their cities.
“The mayor of Safed, inspired by the fact that “Lecha Dodi” and “Shalom Aleichem” were both composed in his city, has pledged to host a special commemorative Kabbalat Shabbat,” said Greenberg. “And the head of the Jezreel Valley council (an area rich in Jewish history and heritage dating back to Talmudic times) will be championing the Shabbat Project throughout the region, with events and activities arranged in each of the four main settlements, and one central event to be held at the historic railway station in Kfar Yehoshua.”
In addition, special “Mayors Tables” events are being held in many locations, with the mayors inviting citizens to share a Friday night meal in their homes.
The Jerusalem and Tel Aviv municipalities have also pledged their support. Indeed, the latter city will be hosting what could turn out to be one of the biggest Shabbat Project events worldwide – a headline Shabbat dinner in Tel Aviv for expected thousands of Israelis.
However, it’s the smaller events happening within communities that are likely to create the strongest effect, and that is where the Shabbat Project Israel team have worked to forge an array of partners.
Chief among them is Hatzofim – Israel’s biggest youth movement – which have committed to sending out all 80,000 of their young, mostly secular, boy and girl scouts to organize Shabbat meals and activities in neighborhoods across the country.
Joining them in these efforts is the Bnei Akiva youth movement, who are dispatching 60,000 of their own members to run similar community events – in many cases working together with Hatzofim scouts. “The fact that we have two very distinct movements putting aside any ideological differences they may have and joining together to bring the Shabbat experience to Jews everywhere is really inspiring, and exemplifies the spirit of the Shabbat Project,” said Goldstein. “And of course it’s thrilling to see the youth taking the lead. We’ve seen it before during last year’s Shabbat Project – how the young bring an irresistible energy to both the organization and the implementation of the events, and galvanize not only their peers but their elders as well.”
Backing up the efforts of these youth movements are the Ministry of Education’s Tarbut Toranit department, who have pledged to be the driving force behind the Shabbat Project in each Israeli city; Nefesh Yehudi, which will be promoting the Shabbat Project and arranging Shabbat events for thousands of students at university campuses across the country; and 70 hesder yeshivas – which will be marshaling over 2,000 student soldiers serving in army bases around Israel to arrange Shabbat dinners and other events.
Other key partners include Migdal Ohr, a network of schools, youth clubs and vocational centers across the country catering for more than 10,000 at-risk children; Shuvu, whose 57 schools bring Jewish education to over 15,000 children nationwide; and the Jewish Agency, which under the auspices of Natan Sharansky, will be promoting participation in the Shabbat Project through numerous satellite organizations in Israel and around the world. In Israel, the Jewish Agency’s main focus will be to bring together thousands of new immigrants, the majority of them Ethiopians, for Shabbat meals at the country’s absorption centers.
Then there’s Leket – Israel’s largest food rescue operation – which has called on people all over the country to arrive at its fields (one in the southern Galilee and the other in Rehovot) on the morning of Friday 23 October to pick fruit and vegetables for the poor, in the spirit of Shabbat. Thousands of volunteers are expected to show up.
Goldstein expressed gratification at the across-the-board response to the project.
“The warmth with which I was received by secular mayors, civil society leaders, NGOs – just about everyone really – has been striking.
I believe it demonstrates the depth of feeling there is to connect with other Jews and with Jewish heritage,” he said.
Greenberg agreed that leaders in Israel, whether observant or not, view the Shabbat Project as an opportunity to create unity.
“They also see it as an act of solidarity with Jews around the world – from whom Israelis often feel isolated,” she said.
“In the Diaspora, most of the Israel headlines we see are to do with war and conflict, with different groups of people at loggerheads.
But – with Shabbat as the unifying factor – we can show the world that people in this country can come together like no other people on earth.”
“You know – so many Israelis see Shabbat as the exclusive domain of the religious, he adds. “We want to show people that Shabbat is simply about being Jewish.”
The Shabbat Project will be taking place this year on October 23-24, in 465 cities and 64 countries around the world.
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