For 30,000 South African Jews observing Shabbat together (20,000 for the first time), Parshat Lech Lecha 2013 was perhaps the most exciting mass event in recent Jewish memory.
Last year, the Shabbos Project went international, partnering with 1,800 organizations and individuals in 465 cities in 65 countries. This year, 5,000 partners are already on board in 560 cities.
The moving force behind the project, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, did not just urge South Africa’s Jews to enjoy a Shabbat meal together – many already do so – but to “keep Shabbat in all of its detail and splendor, as set out in the Code of Jewish Law.” In doing so, he was following the advice of Dan Ariely, an Israeli- American professor of behavioral economics and author of two New York Times best-sellers.
On a 2012 visit to South Africa, Ariely sought a meeting with the chief rabbi. At that meeting, he asked Rabbi Goldstein what mitzva he considered most important.
The latter was reluctant to answer, but did offer that Shabbat had the greatest impact on the preservation of the Jewish people. He noted that Shabbat was the only mitzva specifically referred to by the Torah as a matana (gift), and pointed out that especially in our fast-paced, constantly connected times, it provides a means of holding families together when all the forces of modernity are pulling them apart.
Rabbi Goldstein then posed a question to Ariely: What could he do to encourage more Jews to experience Shabbat for themselves? Ariely advised him to launch a limited campaign pushing Shabbat observance, with the experience being complete and authentic. (Ariely himself observed a full Shabbat for the first time that year.) South Africans responded enthusiastically to the popular chief rabbi’s challenge. Momentum built. A pre-Shabbat, open-air halla-baking program joined three generations of 2,500 women. (Five thousand would attend the post-Shabbat Havdala concert at Johannesburg’s Yeshiva College.) And prominent Jewish celebrities and public figures taped announcements saying they would observe the upcoming Shabbat.
A gentile hairdresser sent out an email to all her customers reminding them to book for Thursday or Friday because the chief rabbi had said they must keep Shabbat. Johannesburg’s bridge clubs reported a 50-percent decline in participation.
On Friday night, the large shuls of Johannesburg were as packed as on Kol Nidre night, with one difference – the parking lots were empty. In the Jewish neighborhoods, everyone wished each other “Good Shabbos” as they walked to shul on Friday night.
Each shul was responsible for its own full-day programming.
Some included open-air Shabbat dinners for hundreds on blocked off streets. Best of all, South African Jews discovered the joys of Shabbat, just as Rabbi Goldstein had hoped they would.
Gayle Landau, from the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, wrote her local rabbi: “Now that I have done it once, the thought of doing so again is not so daunting, and I’m also less intimidated to ask questions as I learn along the way.”
A young couple that labeled the possibility of a day without social media “laughable” found that it was actually relaxing. And school-age children who expected to have the worst weekend of their lives found that they actually loved it.
Still, the question remained: Could the Shabbos Project be replicated elsewhere in the world? South Africa, after all, has several unique features. It has a remarkably homogeneous Jewish community, with over 90% being of Lithuanian descent. And there is much less religious polarization than elsewhere.
Although the South African Jewish community has one of the highest percentages of Shabbat-observant Jews of any country, most are the product or children of the products of a remarkable teshuva revolution in the 1980s. As a consequence, almost every South African Jew has close family members or friends who are Shabbat-observant.
In addition, almost all South African Jews are affiliated with Orthodox shuls, and a high percentage of the children attend nominally Orthodox schools. Saying “I’m a traditional Orthodox Jew – I have never kept a full Shabbat in my life” does not strike the average South African Jew as self-contradictory.
So the infrastructure was in place for a full Shabbat of learning, meals and activities.
AFTER THE success of the initial Shabbos Project, Rabbi Goldstein was eager to see whether it could be exported. Last year proved that it could. Over one million Jews participated in some Shabbos Project event: 5,000 at the world’s largest halla bake in Miami; 13,000 for a Havdala concert in Buenos Aires; and 40% of Melbourne’s 50,000-strong Jewish community signed up for a full Shabbat experience.
In Israel, too, an extensive social media campaign was mounted that reached over a million people. But lacking were organized events on the ground, as Rabbi Goldstein and his Israeli campaign strategists wrestled with how to promote the observance of Shabbat in a country where that very observance has so frequently been a flash point of conflict – e.g., Bar Ilan Street in Jerusalem and confrontations over Shabbat closing laws.
Rabbi Goldstein, a close personal friend for over six years, is one of the most optimistic people I have ever met. And one of the subjects about which he is unapologetically optimistic is that there is actually “a tremendous thirst and yearning among Israeli Jews for a deeper connection to Torah values.”
He recently told me: “We cannot and dare not give into pessimism and accept with resignation that there are large sections of the Jewish people who will not respond to the message of Shabbos and an inspiring Yiddishkeit.”
Over the past year, he has visited Israel repeatedly to promote the upcoming Shabbos Project and to meet with mayors, regional council heads, the directors of the Israeli Scouts, and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky. In contrast to the rest of the world, where the Shabbos Project is headquartered in Johannesburg and basically partners with and supplies explanatory material (translated into nine languages) to any individual or organization that wishes to participate, in Israel the focus has been on those partners perceived as “neutral” and which will not raise the hackles of one or another societal group.
Rabbi Goldstein’s optimism – that “if one approaches Jews with darchei noam (respect and pleasantness) hearts and minds are wide open” – has been more than justified.
Virtually every mayor or municipal official with whom he spoke responded quickly with some variant of “We are on board. Now what do you want us to do?” Cities across Israel – Netanya, Ashkelon, Rehovot, Safed, Sderot – have offered municipal billboards, municipal social media communications and public venues. The mayors of those cities will themselves be hosting public Shabbat meals and Kabbalat Shabbat services.
The open-air halla baking in Tel Aviv is expected to match the 5,000 participants last year in Miami, and perhaps double the number, with a video hook-up to the halla baking in Johannesburg. A festive picnic is planned to spread the spirit of Shabbat through central Tel Aviv.
Every immigrant absorption center will host a halla- baking event, Shabbat meals and a special Havdala service. Scouts, in partnership with the Bnei Akiva youth movement, is sponsoring Shabbat meals in 12 cities and Kabbalat Shabbat services in many more.
The entire media campaign is designed to reach out to Jews like campaign strategist Robby Nissan, who describes himself as a hiloni ma’amin – a believing secularist.
“I hate religion,” he says, “but I love God, Judaism and the tradition.”
Unpacking those seemingly contradictory statements has been key to tapping into the “thirst for the connection to Torah values.” Nissan rejects anything that smacks of religious coercion. But he describes himself as speaking naturally to God – “thanking Him when things go well and invoking His protection when they do not.” He has no doubt that the Jewish people’s millennial journey can only be explained by a unique divine protection.
He is part of a proud people that God created and chose for His own. Moreover, he participates happily in what he views as the Jewish tradition – e.g., fasting on Yom Kippur, avoiding hametz at Passover and building a succa.
The challenge for the Shabbos Project in Israel has been to place Shabbat observance within that “Jewish tradition” and enable “secular believers” to experience it and discover how much it adds to their lives.
One means of doing so has been to emphasize the international nature of observance on Parshat Lech Lecha. Israeli Jews crave a connection to other Jews and view themselves, as citizens of the Jewish state, as bearing a particular responsibility for fostering Jewish identity and unity.
The slogan in Israel “Keeping it Together” is left untranslated to emphasize the participation of Jews around the world. This has nothing to do with the religious- secular divide in Israel. All the advertising highlights a kaleidoscope of Jews from around the world.
Sharon Horev, the Shabbos Project’s graphic designer –who refuses to take any compensation for her huge investment of time and talent – wrote after observing her first full Shabbat last year: “What we are saying is let’s do it, enjoy it, keep it together. We want to unite for the basic reason that we are all Jewish.”
Horev notes that Israeli Jews are good at uniting when times are difficult. But would it not be good, she asks, “to unite around something positive? That for me is what the Shabbos Project is all about.”
Could there be a more relevant message for the dangerous times in which we find ourselves?
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.