The international Shabbat Project involved more than a million Jews in 84 countries

IN THE US alone, there were more than 400 participating cities.

THE SHABBAT PROJECT partner hubs in Ra’anana, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv and Panama City (photo credit: Courtesy)
THE SHABBAT PROJECT partner hubs in Ra’anana, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv and Panama City
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Remarkable stories poured in from around the world in the aftermath of last month’s second international Shabbat Project, in which more than a million Jews in over 900 cities in 84 countries took part.
“It was like something out of a dream.”
Beth Firestone, a teacher and author from Los Angeles, was reflecting on her experiences at a local Shabbat Project “halla bake,” at which 1,300 Jewish women “from every kind of background and affiliation” prepared halla together, then sang, danced and celebrated into the night.
Last month, on October 23/24, in 918 cities around the world, this sense of the surreal – of something truly momentous and unprecedented taking place – was shared by countless others. A Shabbat was felt and celebrated like none before it.
In Dallas and Düsseldorf, Addis Ababa and Antigua, Cancun and Cannes, Hong Kong and Har Nof, New York and Nepal, Melbourne and Moscow, and everywhere in between, Jews of every variety and persuasion united to observe a full Shabbat together.
“The response from around the world was overwhelming and heartwarming, and shows the remarkable depth and reach of the Shabbat Project,” says South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, founder of the Shabbat Project. “There has been a great outpouring of joy and excitement, with so many people touched in deeply personal ways. Such a visceral reaction demonstrates that the ideas of Jewish unity and Shabbat are compelling to Jews from all walks of life.”
To coordinate the initiative on such a scale, the head office in Johannesburg worked with around 5,000 partners worldwide, up from 1,800 partners in 465 cities in 2014.
“From the reports that are still emerging,” Goldstein says, “it’s clear that there has been a significant increase in participation this year, and I am confident this social movement will continue to expand as more and more people taste the magic of Shabbat and experience the beauty of Jews coming together in a spirit of unity.”
IN THE US alone, there were more than 400 participating cities.
Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles was shut down as more than 3,000 people sat down to a Friday night Shabbat dinner billed as one of the biggest in history. The “Shabbat of Unity” dinner saw 300 tables stretching five city blocks, laid out with the finest Shabbat delicacies. Another 500 people arrived after dinner to continue the festivities.
“[There was] a strange excitement in the air, a kind of electricity,” says Shia Altman.
“The gathering included young and old, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, observant and non-observant alike,” Altman says. “There were rows and rows of tables as far as the eye could see. There was hand-shaking and greetings of ‘Shabbat Shalom’ between people who knew each other and between many who did not.
Spontaneous dancing erupted before the meal as participants snaked their way around the tables.”
In New Hempstead in New York’s Rockland County, Bracha Meshchaninov hosted a rather smaller event.
“We are not an organization or anything official, just a family familiar with the beauty of Shabbat and eager to share it with others,” says Meshchaninov.
“We had an amazing Friday night dinner with 14 friends new to the Shabbat experience – four of whom slept over and kept Shabbat in full, staying until Havdala! It was very special.”
In Baltimore, 4,400 women attended a halla bake at the Maryland State Fairgrounds. Such was the diversity on display that organizers allocated separate tables for the deaf (with a sign interpreter), the wheelchair-bound, Russian-speakers, Hebrew-speakers and even vegans and the gluten-intolerant.
Margie Pensak, a writer for a local Baltimore newspaper, observed “strangers becoming friends” while Toni Brafa-Fooksman of Owings Mills said simply: “It’s a really nice feeling to be together with a bunch of other Jewish people – even if I don’t know them.”
That Shabbat, thousands of Baltimorians not normally accustomed to observing Shabbat were either hosted for, or themselves hosted, Shabbat meals, and tents were pitched in private homes all over the city to accommodate more than 150 lay-led Shabbat dinners and luncheons.
In San Diego, the East County Unity Shabbat Dinner saw four congregations – Chabad, Conservative, Reform and Humanist – join together for an outdoor picnic. Countless other unity events took place.
“Members of different sects are now talking to each other,” exclaims Robyn Lichter, a Shabbat San Diego organizer.
The San Diego Tribune called the event – in which close to 20,000 people participated among a Jewish population of whom 17 percent are affiliated and 3% are Orthodox – “miraculous.”
In Dallas, Jackie and Bernie Dimont hosted a meal in their home for more than 100 young professionals, mainly unaffiliated Jews. Abby Widom, a young woman who decided to stay at the home of event organizer Rabbi Mayer Hurwitz and his wife, Elana, was among those keeping Shabbat for the first time.
“Unfortunately, huge thunderstorms hit that Thursday,” says Hurwitz.
“Abby called my wife on Friday afternoon in tears, explaining that her home had been completely flooded and she couldn’t make it for Shabbat. She was more upset about missing out on this experience than her home being underwater. Elana phoned around and got Abby the help she needed to sort out her home, and in the end, much to her delight, she was able to make it for Shabbat.”
IN ISRAEL, where the Shabbat Project was launched at the Knesset and where mayors and municipalities throughout the country actively drove events, 135 cities took part in “Keeping it Together.”
The Jezreel Valley’s five main communities gathered together for musical Kabbalat Shabbat services and joint communal meals. They included the Ramat David air force base, where career soldiers, many serving in the Israel Air Force for over a decade, live with their families.
“In the morning, we had activities in the kindergartens that included children and parents making hallot together,” says Y, a pilot, whose name cannot be revealed for security reasons.
“Later on, in the afternoon, we all came together with Uri Galili and his band, who led us into Kabbalat Shabbat.
But the real highlight was making Kiddush and sharing dinner and singing Shabbat songs together as a community for the first time.... It gave us a shiver,” he says.
At an after-dinner “tisch,” people shared personal stories and experiences, opening up to each other in ways they hadn’t before.
“Our community,” the pilot Y continues, “has held many cultural activities over the years, but something like this – never! It was something special.
From now on, we will be doing this once a month.”
Sean Haber, a lone soldier living on a secular kibbutz in the north of Israel, had a more personal experience. After hearing about the Shabbat Project, he immediately called a friend in Ramat Beit Shemesh and asked if he would join him for the weekend.
“Shabbat came in and we went together to the local Carlebach minyan,” Haber says. “The service wasn’t all that familiar, but I couldn’t stop singing and dancing and celebrating.
I ate the Friday night meal with some good friends in the area and it was amazing. The food, the conversation, the sense of heightened spirituality.”
He describes the Sabbath day as peaceful.
“As the sun slowly went down, people from across the city gathered in the park, and we had a big seuda shlishit [traditional third meal] picnic,” he says. “It was beautiful, idyllic.
I didn’t want the experience to end, I just wanted to sing and let it go on forever. As I write this, I am back on base up north wishing that I can do it again....”
Thirteen-year-old Arad Frichter perhaps best captured the spirit of the Shabbat Project by inviting the entire city of Tel Aviv to his bar mitzva.
“I love to hear people wishing me good luck,” says Frichter, grinning.
“I wanted a lot of people to take part in my joy. You celebrate a bar mitzva once in a lifetime and it’s a big day, so why not celebrate with a few more people?” About five hundred attended. Some were visiting a synagogue for the first time.
IN THE UK, where the initiative was endorsed by Prime Minister David Cameron, it is believed that 100,000 people took part in the Shabbat Project. Dubbed “ShabbatUK,” it was billed as “the largest mass participation event ever organized for the Jewish community.”
Just one among hundreds of participating shuls, the Barnet Synagogue had 154 of its members who do not normally observe Shabbat keep it in its entirety, and 250 people either hosting or being hosted for Friday night dinners.
“The spirit in the shul that Shabbat was electrifying,” says Naomi Lerer, “further boosted by a baby naming, a brit mila [circumcision ceremony], a bar mitzva, a bat mitzva and a second bar mitzva, all on the same day!” In western Europe, countries such as France and Belgium were full of activity. Amsterdam coordinated a mass “home-stay” campaign, with people from cities across Holland descending on the country’s capital where they were hosted by local families.
A “Shabbaton” in Rotterdam saw a number of locals keep Shabbat for the first time.
“Some were hosted by families that live within walking distance of the local synagogue; some stayed at a bed and breakfast in the area, and some walked an hour each way on Friday night and again on Shabbat morning,” says Rabbi Yehuda Vorst, who coordinated the event.
In Russia, 26 cities took part, while scores of towns in Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania that bustled with Jewish life before the Holocaust enjoyed a Shabbat-inspired reawakening.
“The Choral Synagogue In Vilna, Lithuania – the only one still in use – was filled for the first time in 75 years!” says Justine Seeff, a South African of Lithuanian descent in the country on a heritage tour.
She was told that the small community usually struggled to get a minyan.
“After the service, a dinner was held in the presence of the mayor of Vilnius and the Israeli ambassador to Lithuania,” Seeff relates. “The event even featured in the pages of a national Lithuanian daily newspaper, along with a halla recipe, and a prediction that next year’s Shabbos Project would be even bigger!” Melbourne, Australia, decided to give its Shabbat some air. Among the hundreds of events were a picnic lunch for 850 in a local park, scores of dinners and lunches in the street, and various outdoor prayer and meditation services. A “human chain” initiative saw Melbournians joining together to walk to synagogues across the city, picking up people at hundreds of stops along the way.
“It wasn’t about my shul or your shul,” says Rabbi Moshe Kahn, who helped put the initiative together.
“The emphasis was on going to whatever shul you could that was within walking distance.”
Melbourne’s Havdala concert, held in Caulfield Park, drew more than 5,000 people, with a dramatic fireworks display bringing the curtain down on another extraordinary Shabbat that, according to local businessman and project driver Simon De Winter, “has changed the city for good.”
Kahn says there was no “competition.”
“Everyone was a part of the Shabbat Project,” he says. “This was something larger than any individual or any individual organization. At our final meeting, I took a moment to look around the room at the diversity of our committee members and I got goosebumps.”
IN MEXICO CITY, where more than a third of the Jewish community was involved in the project, a 13-year-old girl invited 20 of her friends to her home. Some 260 members of Tnua, a non-religious youth movement, kept Shabbat together at a local school gymnasium.
Three sold-out Shabbatons involving more than 750 people were held at hotels in the city to make it easier for people to keep Shabbat.
Most startling was the level of cooperation.
“Our Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities were all part of the Shabbat Project, sending us volunteers for the committee, supporting us with funding, and in general helping us with whatever we needed,” says Mexico City coordinator, Emilio Penhos.
“Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities held joint services, which was really special,” Penhos says. “This is the first time in Mexico all of our communities have participated together in the same initiative.”
In Rio de Janeiro, Claudia Diwan was among those who participated in this year’s Shabbat Project. She kept Shabbat for the first time during last year’s event, and has been doing so ever since.
“Last year, Rabbanit Shrem [from Beth El Synagogue] gave me Shabbat candles and I lit them for the first time,” she says. “From that day, everything changed in my life and I am keeping Shabbat until now. This year’s Shabbat Project brought those memories flooding back, and made me feel so grateful for the opportunity.”
Elsewhere in Latin America, the Buenos Aires halla bake vied with the Johannesburg bake as the biggest of its kind anywhere, as 6,000 women were bused in from around the city.
Over Shabbat, almost all of the shuls in the Argentine capital reported capacity turnouts.
And in Toronto – another Shabbat Project champion city – hundreds of families and individuals were hosted for their first ever Shabbat through Project Inspire. One host describes the experience: “We had guests over who had never previously tasted the beauty of a real Shabbos experience – devoid of phone calls, texting, media, cooking or preparing. Devoid of everything, in fact, except the pure, uninterrupted pleasure of ‘being’ and ‘connecting.’ We spent over four hours at the Shabbos table together. There were lively discussions, stories, songs, words of Torah – along with some good Scotch and some amazing and colorful food dishes. It was wonderful. There is much that could be said about our discussions and what we learned about each other and our respective lifestyles. In short, it was a memorable experience for all of us, with new friendships forged through the power and spirit of Shabbos.”
ONCE AGAIN, though, it was the more unlikely partner cities that really captured people’s imagination.
Among the many “remote” places where the Shabbat Project was celebrated: Fifty students and young couples attended a Shabbat dinner in Izmir, one of six Turkish communities taking part. (Because of the threat of anti-Semitism, there was no public advertising of any kind, and the Turkish organizers had to rely on word of mouth.) Swaziland’s entire Jewish community, comprising 18 families, gathered for a communal Shabbat meal at someone’s home, endeavoring to keep Shabbat in full. A synagogue in El Salvador ran a full Shabbat Project program for 160 people. The Griqualand West Hebrew Congregation in South Africa’s Karoo desert held a Shabbat morning service for the first time in years.
Then there were the 33 strangers – perhaps the majority of the city’s entire Jewish population – who attended an open-invitation Shabbat dinner at the home of Keli Rae in Fernley, Nevada. Rae put word out about her Shabbat dinner on local Fernley Facebook groups. In the first 24 hours, six families responded. None had any real prior affiliation with organized Judaism.
“I asked the guests to bring chairs.
Two of them brought family heirloom Kiddush cups, and one had an embroidered Shabbat tablecloth that her grandmother had made,” she says.
“We asked the women if they wished to light candles and they eagerly agreed,” she continues. “They especially liked seeing my one-yearold granddaughter cover her eyes whenever anyone recited the bracha.
The meal was nice and relaxed. We had good discussions... talked about our backgrounds... got to know each other. I’d do this again.”
Most remotely of all, 30 public-spirited adventurers from Israel, the UK, US, Canada and France spent Shabbat together on the “rooftop of Africa.”
The group was summiting Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to raise funds for SHALVA, the Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children in Israel.
Four days into the eight-day trek – a Friday – they set up camp at Barranco Wall, close to 4,000 meters above sea level. All elected to observe Shabbat and had organized an eruv, a ritual enclosure, and special Shabbat meals in advance.
Group leader Perry Sugarman describes the experience: “By around 5 p.m. you could feel the buzz of excitement around camp as everyone prepared for Shabbat. At 6 p.m. we gathered in the mess tent to start Minha [prayers] and proceeded to sing and even dance our way through a beautiful and exceptionally memorable Kabbalat Shabbat service above the clouds. The next morning, the dulcet tones of our resident hazzan [cantor] could be heard echoing around Barranco Wall for all to enjoy. Kiddush was made over some prized whiskey and everyone enjoyed a well-earned rest and an afternoon of chatting and card games. We ended our Shabbat with a beautiful Havdala service and lots more singing and dancing. It was an unforgettable and intensely spiritual Shabbat. On the journey home, one member of our group confided to me: ‘That was my first Shabbat... and I would like to do it again.’” Finally, to South Africa, where the Shabbat Project was born in 2013.
This year saw Shabbat street dinners – some involving up to a thousand people – taking place in virtually every neighborhood in Johannesburg. And for the third year in succession, the vast majority of South African Jews were enthusiastic participants. Scores of innovative initiatives took place over the Shabbat, including “popup shuls” for those who lived too far from a shul to walk, and “house-hop meals,” which involved people eating different courses of their Shabbat meal at different homes in the neighborhood.
The keynote event in Cape Town, meanwhile, brought hundreds of people from five Sea Point shuls to the Sephardi Hebrew Congregation for a relaxing afternoon on the lawns, followed by a “unity Minha” and Havdala concert.
Ninety-four-year-old Ella Blumenthal, who survived the Warsaw ghetto as well as Majdanek, Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, was moved to say: “During the Holocaust, we had dreams things would be better one day. We dreamed of a brighter Jewish future. I never dreamed it could be this much better – that our future could be this bright.”
That Shabbat, the dream was real.