Shabbat Project: 'Shabbat is stealing a day out of life to live'

“In the rush of modern-day technology and crisis of attention, Shabbat puts aside distractions and allows us to connect with God."

(photo credit: SHABBAT PROJECT)
Shabbat is one of Judaism’s most powerful and enduring institutions. “Shabbat is Judaism’s stillness at the heart of the turning world,” in the words of the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
Whatever Jews have gone through or are dealing with today, Shabbat is a reminder that for a 25-hour period, there is a need to disconnect from the world, reintegrate with family, be part of a community, and connect to God. It was this innate understanding of the centrality of Shabbat to Judaism that led Rabbi Warren Goldstein to institute the Shabbat Project.
He is the current chief rabbi of the Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa – and his idea, though seemingly simple, is brilliantly radical. He distilled his thought process about the need for the Shabbat project succinctly. “There are two dimensions: the importance of Jewish unity, and affirming Jewish identity in a positive way.” Goldstein added that there needed to be a practical element to fostering a sense of unity. “We cannot just pay lip service to unity, there has to be a practical reality that is tangible and real.”
The Shabbat Project is evidence of the positive aspect of unintended consequences. Goldstein implemented it because it seemed like a good fit for the kind of community that he is leader of in South Africa. However, it is an example of how a local initiative can organically take on global proportions.
“People have embraced it,” remarked Goldstein, “and that is an element of community activation. There is active participation from the community, utilizing natural grassroots energy.”
When asked why the project struck such a chord, Goldstein explained that although Shabbat has the most ancient of roots, its universal message is more relevant today than ever before. He views it as a time of resetting priorities. “In the rush of modern-day technology and the crisis of attention,” said Goldstein, “Shabbat puts aside the distractions and allows us to connect with God and our sense of Jewish destiny and identity.”
The project has helped people to connect, oftentimes to others in a dispersed community, who didn’t realize that there were other Jewish families in the vicinity. This realization that there are other Jews in an area with whom to connect has acted as a catalyst for the burgeoning success of the Shabbat Project.
“We now have more than 5,000 volunteer activists across the globe,” said Goldstein.
The rabbi viewed the success of the Shabbat Project as a blueprint for the future of the Jewish world. “We cannot rest on Jewish institutions alone, although their work is outstanding and important. To rejuvenate the Jewish world we need community activism and personal participation.”
Goldstein suggested that the power of the Shabbat Project goes far beyond the seemingly limited scope of communities spending Shabbat together. “This is a crucial dimension,” he emphasized, “to address assimilation, apathy and drift. People are dissociating from Judaism. In order for Jews to connect with our heritage, we need to highlight the energy and relevance of it – a catalyst for the empowering inspiration that brings it to life.”
He maintained that the vision of the Shabbat Project is that it shows a new side of Judaism, that Jewish unity doesn’t have to be a dusty concept, and the combined power of Jews coming together in 1,500 cities across 100 countries invigorates Jewish unity at a time of Jewish dislocation. Goldstein also suggested that grassroots concepts such as the Shabbat Project can also help to bridge the seemingly widening divide between Israeli Jews and the Diaspora, by bringing life and meaning to the concept of Jewish unity.
We live in a world that seems to be evermore connected, with social media, 5G, high-speed Internet and the ability to do a myriad of things at the click of a button. However, there is a crisis of belonging and purpose, one that the Shabbat Project can help to alleviate. It points to both the necessity and relevance of Shabbat in our time. With people often glued to their phones and other electronic devices, Shabbat creates an oasis in time, where traditional mores, family, community and interaction with God are paramount. One of Goldstein’s favorite quotes -–from Louis Brandeis – exemplifies the power of Shabbat and the Shabbat Project, “Shabbat is stealing a day out of life to live.”
A soon-to-be-published book takes the ideas of Shabbat further, helping to set down a framework to empower people to participate and not just consume. The era of the all-encompassing Jewish organization with the leadership at the top directing policy or action is becoming a thing of the past. “A key ingredient is active participation and partnership,” Goldstein said.
Furthermore, in an era of increased antisemitism, the Shabbat Project also creates a crucial bulwark against the vicissitudes of a marked uptick in anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence. For Goldstein, a rededication to Judaism, Jewish values and Shabbat can all act as a strong counterbalance to the maelstrom threatening to unsettle much of Diaspora Jewry.
“If we are not careful,” Goldstein warned, “we can let antisemitism define us. If we are trying to transmit Judaism to the next generations, we have to show that our values are sustainable. We need to go to the heart of what antisemitism is about.
“Antisemitism is very unusual. We are not a race, culture or ethnicity – so what is being attacked? We are our mitzvot, we were a nation born at the foot of a mountain – God tasking us with spreading His light in the world.”
In that vein, this year’s Shabbat Project falls on the first yahrzeit of the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh. Goldstein viewed it as an opportunity to focus and dedicate its message, affirming the positive of who we are with an inspiring and empowering message.
It was not just the Shabbat Project that responded to Pittsburgh and did so by trying to draw Jews closer to one another. As a direct result of the tragedy, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) established its #ShowUpForShabbat campaign. “[It] was the largest manifestation of solidarity with the Jewish community in American history, bringing together Jews and people of all faiths who were looking for a way to express their grief and defiance in response to the Pittsburgh attack,” said AJC’s Assistant Executive Director and Managing Director of Global Communications, Avi Mayer. “This year’s #ShowUpForShabbat effort, which will take place the Shabbat before the anniversary of the attack, will bring us together once again, to remember those lost and recommit to the fight against antisemitism in all its forms.” Once again, it was the innate power and message of Shabbat that was utilized to galvanize the Jewish community to seek unity over division.
For Simone Abelsohn, a San Diego native and an individual who has been involved with her communities from a very young age, the Shabbat Project was also the place of healing.
Abelsohn recalled a special atmosphere at havdalah to mark the end of that Shabbat in fall 2018. “Our numbers doubled for havdalah; it was clear that Jewish people wanted to be with other Jews, to connect and be together. It’s heartbreaking that it was a tragedy that brought people together...but it did.”
In April 2019, Poway, San Diego, would join the growing list of Jewish communities to have become the victim of an antisemitic attack. The experience of coming together as a community in response to an incident that happened more than halfway across the country was important for both the Poway Chabad synagogue in particular, and the wider San Diego Jewish community in general.
“After Poway, I went there for that Shabbat, and that Friday night the rabbi did a great job of bringing people closer together,” Abelsohn said. “It was so touching, powerful and inspiring – Shabbat candles bringing people together.”
The power of Shabbat and the Shabbat Project, then, is not only simple, but deep and meaningful.
“Shabbat is one of the only things we have in common,” she said. “From sunset to sunset we celebrate in a very similar way – kiddush, hamotzi, etc. – it is what it is and there is no debate.”
In San Diego, this is especially true of their havdalah concert.
“San Diego rabbis were all together on the stage,” Abelsohn remembered. “When I say San Diego rabbis, we’re talking Chabad, Modern Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist. We had Holocaust survivors and bnei mitzvot standing on the stage too. It was wonderful and uplifting to see different denominations coming together.”
One of pre-state Israel’s greatest writers and Zionist thinkers, Ahad Ha’am (Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg), made many telling contributions to Jewish ethics. Perhaps one of his finest was to distill the importance of Shabbat: “More than the Jewish people has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people. Rest one day in seven and you won’t burn out.”
The Shabbat Project is the embodiment of this sentiment. It has brought disparate Jews from far-flung corners of the world together with other Jews, purely for the joy of celebrating a holy time together.