The Shabbat Project unifies Jews across South Africa - and the world

Reporter's notebook: Program has made observing Shabbat possible for Jews in 1,600 cities in 106 countries.

The Shabbat Project in South Africa
SOUTH AFRICA – “Unity” and “pride” were the unofficial themes of the Shabbat Project weekend in South Africa, as locals in Cape Town and Johannesburg (or Joburg, as they call it) used those words to describe the entire South African Jewish community.
The number of Jews in both cities who said that the SA Jewish community was the best in the world was astounding.
Throughout the weekend, Chief Rabbi of South Africa Dr. Warren Goldstein repeated the same sentence: “Shabbos belongs to every Jew.”
Goldstein was there at the start of the Shabbat Project, and proudly spoke at Sydenham-Highlands North Hebrew Congregation of the project’s success, saying it reached 1,600 cities in 106 countries.
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 mixed into a modern city.
At my first stop I saw something familiar: university students setting up for Shabbat dinner, - something I had done at American University Hillel many times. The dinner was sponsored by OHRSOM Students, an organization affiliated with the Ohr Somayach shul.
They said they were expecting 50 people for dinner, though that number could grow. They were excited at the prospect of more guests. This was 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 advisor to OHRSOM Students 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).”
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. They 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.
Challah bakings 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 “challah dates.” The boxes held enough ingredients for two people, and were meant to encourage small gatherings.
The challah 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 non-existent.
The same thing happened in Joburg: Jews of all walks of life came together. The concert event and Shabbat lunch were also mixed events. At the same lunch table there was an observant rabbi, a woman who drove to the lunch, and everyone 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 only have started in South Africa.
The atmosphere of unity is the secret sauce that makes Shabbat accessible for Jews across the spectrum of observance.