Shabbos Project Toronto: The tie that binds

With just over six weeks to go, the project is starting to take shape, as team Toronto heads into the final stretch.

THE SHABBAT PROJECT partner hubs in Ra’anana, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv and Panama City. (photo credit: PR)
THE SHABBAT PROJECT partner hubs in Ra’anana, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv and Panama City.
(photo credit: PR)
Toronto is a place of rapid, extraordinary change. A place where you throw water out the window and it freezes before it hits the ground; where the famous CN Tower (1976) – a 553-meter telecommunications spire and formerly the world’s tallest building – was erected in 24 months; where a relatively heterogeneous British enclave of 650,000 souls became a multicultural mélange of close to three million in just a few decades.
Toronto is a place where one moment is unrecognizably different from the next.
Of course, such change doesn’t happen arbitrarily or in a vacuum. It is driven by individuals driving the change from the inside. Dena Bensalmon is one of those individuals. And the revolution she is helping to drive – alongside a passionate team of around 150 fellow volunteers – is the Shabbos Project.
“Like many thousands of others, I first heard about the Shabbos Project via social media through my Facebook feed,” she said. “I watched the video put out by South Africa (where it was introduced in 2013) showcasing their experiences last year and I was astounded. The fact that Jews of every variety came together across all of those traditional divides to keep one Shabbat together; that families were brought closer; that everyone – young and old, observant and not – got a great spiritual lift.
“Immediately I thought, this is what we need in Toronto!” The international Shabbos Project, which is being held October 24-25, 2014, will see Jews from across the spectrum – religious, secular, traditional, young and old – unite to keep a full Shabbat together in more than 200 cities around the world, including Toronto.
Approximately 220,000 Jews live in the Greater Toronto area (GTA), making it not only Canada’s largest Jewish population center, but also one of the world’s largest diaspora communities.
“In Toronto, there are around 1,400 Jewish synagogues, schools and organizations, and we’ve made it our goal to try and reach every single one of them,” said Bensalmon, a local businesswoman. “Fortunately, we have around 150 passionate volunteers gradually making this a reality.”
To get things started, she enlisted close friend Ilana Chilewitz, an assistant business analyst, as a sidekick.
“I provide the sparks and creative energy, and Ilana – my co-project manager – uses her extraordinary project management skills and technological know-how to bring ideas to fruition. We make a great team... not to mention the fact that I just adore her!” The Shabbos Project’s Toronto-head office is rounded out by Sanchia Rabin, who is in charge of event management.
Then there is a Steering Committee comprised of high-profile communal leaders, community rabbis and business men and women, including Rabbi Jarrod Grover, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, Carol Shapiro, Shaya Berglas, Rabbi Glenn Black and Stuart Heitman.
There is also a PR/marketing/community relations/ fund-raising team made up of Andrew Jefferson (project manager); Sarah Zeldman (online marketing); Rabbi Leib Irons (traditional marketing); Yehuda Zolty (fund-raising); and Barbara Meyer (PR). Rebbetzin Gail Machalowicz oversees the Halla bake; Gavin Opert the Havdala Unity Concert; and Marcus Kanner the numerous activities and programs taking place over the Shabbat of October 24-25. There also are scores of other volunteers.
“Our planning meetings are electrifying,” said Chilewitz.
“It’s incredible to be sitting at a table with representatives from organizations such as Chabad, NCSY, Aish Hatorah, Partners in Torah, DANI, and so many passionate individuals who want to make a difference in any way they can. One member of the team put it beautifully – ‘When we come into a meeting, we leave our hats at the door.’ Before the weekend of the Shabbos Project even hits, the unity in Toronto is palpable.”
Over the past few months, the team has steadily gone through the entire list of synagogues, temples, schools, and community organizations in the GTA, making sure not a single Jew in Toronto is left out.
To bolster these awareness efforts, a Facebook page, Twitter feed and YouTube channel have been set up and are updated continually. A dedicated website ( will be launched September 10, providing info on how to get involved. There have been various print-media segments, and posters, fliers, lawn signs and billboards already are starting to appear across the city.
Numerous partners have been roped in, including Partners in Torah, which will provide one-on-one guidance on Shabbat observance to those who sign up; and, a website that places people for Shabbat meals and/or accommodation, bolstering the efforts of the many shuls already involved in this.
With just over six weeks to go, the project is starting to take shape, as team Toronto heads into the final stretch.
“Our Thursday night Halla Bake event to kick off the Shabbos Project is expected to attract around 4,000 women,” said Rabin. “Plans for the Shabbat itself are too numerous to mention, but they include hospitality programs, ready-made Shabbat meals distributed centrally, innovative youth programs, and much more. We have snapped up Shlomo Katz (the popular Jewish folk singer who performed in South Africa after last year’s Shabbos Project), Gad Elbaz and other musical guests for our Havdala Unity Concert. And there will be around 50 buses transporting people to the event after Shabbat, which should be a thrilling experience itself!” Of course, to get off the ground, such large-scale events require more than just manpower and passionate volunteers. They require funding. Quite a lot of it.
Fortunately, the team has adopted an innovative (and, to date, quite successful) approach to raising money – in addition to their crowd-funding site, they are currently putting together a “Shabbos Project Journal” showcasing local businesses that are supporting the initiative.
“Journal adverts will be collected into a beautiful magazine to be handed out to over 10,000 families across the GTA at the Halla Bake and at the Havdala Unity Concert,” said Zolty. “All of our sponsors – all who have donated time, money, ‘gifts in kind,’ etc.
– will have their ads placed in the journal. The publication also will feature tributes and letters of endorsement from rabbis, community leaders and members of parliament. Even our prime minister, Steven Harper, has endorsed the Shabbos Project, and his remarks will be appearing in the journal!” Fittingly, the journal also will include adverts showcasing the businesses of the various volunteers – none of whom are being paid to work on the Shabbos Project, even while dedicating themselves to what is, for many of them, almost a full-time job.
“In many ways, we’ve put our regular lives on hold for this,” said Zeldman, a single mom who oversees the online marketing while holding down her marketing day job. “I guess that shows you how important we think this initiative is.”
Similarly, Kanner, another Shabbos Project committee volunteer, is in the middle of a major degree, while Bensalmon, a mother of four, has put her business to the side and has her husband and children on a strict housework roster. Meanwhile, Chilewitz wakes up at 5 a.m. to answer the emails Bensalmon missed after midnight (yesterday there were 195).
“All of us are in the same boat,” she said. “We are all making sacrifices for the Shabbos Project because it is something we really believe in, something that will break new ground – not just here in Toronto but, from the stories we are hearing, all over the world.“ And, with D-Day nearing and things becoming increasingly frenetic, the team is still looking for any additional assistance they can get.
“We always need more help,” said Chilewitz. “It can’t be emphasized enough how volunteering is key.
This is a grassroots project led by the people. Teens, students, men, women, lawyers, accountants, stay-athome moms, plumbers, electricians, rabbis, teachers – anyone who is passionate and wants to get involved can and must do so.”
Chilewitz isn’t the only one clamoring for volunteers and additional support. Rabbi Grover – a member of the steering committee and spiritual leader at the Beth Tikvah Congregation (one of Toronto’s largest Conservative shuls) – has encouraged his colleagues at Conservative and Reform synagogues vociferously to take part in the Shabbos Project.
In a recent letter he sent out, Grover urged everyone to set aside any ideological differences and “demonstrate that our unity is stronger.”
“All of our communities, no matter our affiliations, rest on the foundation of Shabbat,” he said. “Every synagogue in the city cares deeply about Shabbat.”
Despite some initial resistance to the idea, Grover said many have been won over and are “overjoyed” at the prospect of an initiative that could break down boundaries in unprecedented ways.
For Bensalmon, nothing could be more important.
“Having lived in Toronto my whole life, I sometimes see the beauty in this city tarnished by the division between Jews of different ‘persuasions’ and even within these artificial groupings. This is a travesty. We are one people. One nation. One soul. It’s time for a change in Toronto, and The Shabbos Project may be just what we need.”
Chilewitz shares these sentiments.
“We are living in a time when unity amongst the Jewish nation is needed like never before. Initiatives like the Shabbos Project can help to forge this unity. By keeping one Shabbat together, we can show the world, and ourselves, that the most important thing we can do as the Jewish nation is love each other – fully and unconditionally.”
The international Shabbos Project is taking place around the world over the Shabbat of Parshat Noach, on October 24-25, 2014. For more info, or to sign up, visit