Keeping Shabus – and getting around town

Even though the future looks bright for the Shabus with a steady increase in membership, the main goal of this endeavor is, as Wharton explains “to become obsolete.”

Shabus transportation (photo credit: SARAH LEVI)
Shabus transportation
(photo credit: SARAH LEVI)
The nonprofit Shabus transportation collective has become a familiar term for a small community of secular Jerusalemites for over a year now. Since I fall into that category, I had heard the term here and there and had seen Facebook posts every once in a while, but I never had the need for follow-up because I live in the city center and am within walking distance of many things that Jerusalem has to offer.
But what about the thousands of people who don’t observe Shabbat and don’t want to feel trapped at home? Many don’t own cars or have driving licenses and don’t want to spend their hard-earned money on cab fare. So what about them? A FEW months ago, I noticed that the Shabus was appearing on my Moovit app (real-time public transportation times), and my curiosity grew. This led me to investigate what this was all about. So on a recent Friday night, I rode the Shabus during its eight-hour route to further understand where it goes, who uses it and the people behind the collective.
Prior to my ride, I had no idea it was a collective. Judging by its name, I figured that it was just a bus that rode on Shabbat.
I thought that anybody could just hop on and off and pay the driver when they boarded. However, after talking to Shabus president and city councilwoman Laura Wharton, she explained that because the Transportation Ministry bans any kind of public transportation on Shabbat in Jerusalem, the only solution was to establish a collective for it to be private, with non-Jewish drivers, and therefore legal. In short, the Shabus is a service available to members only.
Joining is simply a matter of signing up on the Shabus website (
il/) and paying a NIS 20 annual fee. After that, passengers can use the service, which runs on Friday nights from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m., for NIS 12 a ride. Membership is growing steadily; the Shabus has more than 1,300 members and counting.
Another part of the municipal ban is the handling of money on a vehicle on Shabbat (even for a private collective). Therefore, each Shabus is equipped with a tablet that has a working Shabus app that keeps track of passengers and deducts each ride from their account. Passengers type in their phone number on the tablet, and off they go.
The public transportation ban in Jerusalem on Shabbat is nothing shocking to those of us living here; however, Wharton says that in recent years the demand for transportation on Shabbat began to grow due to what she describes as a “cultural rebirth in Jerusalem.”
In an attempt to meet the demand of those seeking an affordable alternative to the lack of public transportation on Friday nights, Wharton and a group of 11 volunteers devised a working solution.
After consulting with lawyers specializing in NGOs and nonprofits, and eventually raising more than NIS 100,000 from hundreds of contributions from their Headstart campaign to get the project off the ground, on May 1, 2015, the Shabus made its maiden voyage, much to the delight and relief of the nearly 500 backers of the project.
Wharton asserts, “This is an economical and just solution for people to visit their friends and family and to go out on Friday nights if they want. It is also a safe alternative that lowers the chances of drunk driving and encourages people to use public transportation. This is also a way to empower secular Jerusalemites while fueling the city’s economy.”
Since this is a nonprofit and it is raising most of its financial resources through crowdfunding initiatives (the last one being in April, earning over NIS 65,000), Wharton says that the service can only afford to run on Friday nights for now.
After my brief introduction to the ins and outs of this service, I was ready to see the Shabus in action.
My journey began in front of the Marakia on Koresh Street at 6:30 on a balmy Friday evening. The atmosphere was unmistakable and familiar: A cool and quiet hush fell over the city as Shabbat and the start of the weekend approached.
A white minibus with a green LED sign on the windshield with the word “SHABUS” in Hebrew and a decal of the Shabus logo on the side door would be my ride for the night.
My driver, Husam, began his route as he does every Friday evening at 6 in Pisgat Ze’ev en route to the city center, and then crosses through Gilo back to the center.
The other driver, Ayman, is his younger brother. He also begins his night at 6 p.m. but coming from Cat Square towards Pisgat Ze’ev.
Husam takes pride in his work and likes the weekly gig that he and Ayman have been doing for almost a year.
In general, the nights start off slowly for the Shabus, and this night was no different. Husam drove for a good hour before picking up his first passenger, Ruth, in front of Denia Square a little after 7 p.m.
Since she had missed the last bus of the day, Ruth noticed the Shabus on her Moovit app and waited for its arrival to get her to Rehavia for Friday night dinner with friends. A 20-something teacher new to Jerusalem, she boarded the bus thinking that she could just pay the driver and get to her destination. Instead, Husam explained how the Shabus worked and said that since she had the Moovit app on her phone and this was her first time using the Shabus, the ride was on the house. All she had to do was enter her phone number in the tablet, wait for an SMS, and enjoy the ride. This little welcome bonus is available to all first-time passengers who have this app.
For the next two hours, we picked up a handful of passengers. Ophir, a regular, uses it every week to get to his shift at YES Planet. The remaining few were on their way to Friday night dinners with friends or family.
The service reached its peak at around 9 to 11 p.m. with a lively mix of students, couples and soldiers. All of them said with unrestrained enthusiasm what a relief this service was, how much money they were saving on cab fare and how convenient it was.
I couldn’t help but notice that all the passengers fit into a very specific type of Jerusalem character: all between the ages of 20 and 30, and all students, university educated or soldiers. With these similarities, I found it challenging to keep up interviews with the passengers. When they would overhear another talk about his or her major in college or what unit they were in the military, they would stop talking to me and strike up a familiar conversation: “Oh, do you know this person? Were you at this thing? When is your release date?” etc.
As a former student myself, these types of interactions are pretty commonplace while taking the bus to and from Mount Scopus on weekdays. However, on the Shabus, they seem to take on a different meaning for the passengers.
“It’s amazing how excited you can get from a bus ride” Michal from the German Colony exclaimed as she and her partner, Shay, returned from Friday night dinner at her parents’ home in Kiryat Hayovel. The pair had already used it twice that night and said that they were on the aforementioned maiden voyage one year ago and since then have been using it almost every week.
A majority of the responses and the stories were similar to that of Michal and Shay’s. About half the passengers that night were using the Shabus to get into the city center to go to pubs or restaurants, while the other half were traveling to and/or from Friday night dinners with friends or family.
The vibe on the Shabus was warm and welcoming. Husam was familiar with many of the regulars. Sometimes he told me their stories before I got a chance to ask them myself.
Around four hours into Husam’s ride, Shabus CEO Nadav Cohen boarded the minibus and served as an information booth for passengers who had questions or comments regarding the service. A Jerusalem native, Cohen left the hi-tech world to focus his energy full time on this project.
He was very outgoing and eager to answer questions, hand out Shabus pamphlets with information, routes and schedules and help people use the tablet.
One of the questions was about offering the service on Saturdays. His reply was “In order to be able to work on Saturday, we need to raise about NIS 200,000. We believe that it will be possible at the end of next year, but it is an estimation only.”
At around 11:30 p.m., both minibuses made one of two trips to Mevaseret Zion and Ma’aleh Adumim, a new and well-received addition to the Shabus route.
Husam picks up and drops off passengers in Mevaseret at 10:30 p.m. and 3 a.m., and Ayman does the same in Ma’aleh Adumim at the same times.
Throughout the night, Husam would slow the vehicle down for a group of people standing by a bus stop, while Cohen stuck his head out the window and asked “Shabus?” The people would either look puzzled and shake their heads “No” or hop aboard for the ride.
Shortly after midnight, the bus pulled back into the city center in front of the Marakia, and a bunch of familiar faces from earlier in the evening piled back onto the Shabus, punched in their phone numbers on the tablet, took a seat and enjoyed the ride back to French Hill or Pisgat Ze’ev. At this point, the passengers were well acquainted with one another.
It was a spirited ride home as they briefly recounted the events of their nights out to each other.
Husam joked around with some of the regulars sitting in the front of the bus while Cohen chatted up the rest of the passengers, fielding questions and even finding common bonds with some.
At around 1 a.m. the Shabus was pretty much empty as it rode through the city.
Cohen hopped off and headed home, and I joined Husam for one last round to Gilo and back to the city center a little after 2, where I left him to make his final ride to Mevaseret.
Even though the future looks bright for the Shabus with a steady increase in membership, the main goal of this endeavor is, as Wharton explains “to become obsolete.”
“This is a real solution to a real problem, and we hope to get enough members to show that there is a real need and we can become a vestigial body that will no longer be of use, and we will happily shut down once the government takes responsibility and provides public transportation seven days a week. Until then, we are devoted to our task of providing a legal, efficient and user-friendly alternative,” Wharton concludes.
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