Keeping Shabbat together

Tel Aviv takes part in a global Jewish event.

A Shabbat talk in a Tel Aviv Synagogue
“If all Jews keep one Shabbat, the Messiah will come,” the Jerusalem Talmud states. And historically, Shabbat has been a great part of the glue that has held Jewry together. But today, many have no experience of Shabbat observance, or they regard its halachot as a series of dusty, outdated prohibitions.
Enter the Shabbos Project, a grassroots social movement that welcomes Jews of all affiliations to the full Shabbat experience.
The project’s tagline, “Keeping It Together,” highlights Jewish unity. The project began last year in South Africa with a conversation between behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely and Chief Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein. The result was a challenge to South African Jewry to observe Shabbat as set down by Jewish law, just that once. It evolved into an enthusiastic whirl of halla baking workshops, study groups and communal Shabbat meals.
The Shabbos Project has since ballooned into an annual global phenomenon. This year’s project, which occurred last week, had Shabbat events taking place in more than 200 cities and 33 countries around the globe.
At first, all was not well with Israel’s Shabbat. Deborah Danan, the organizer of White City Shabbat, discovered that on the Shabbos Project’s website list of partner cities, Tel Aviv was not listed.
“More than that, even Israel wasn’t on the list – a glaring omission, considering that even far-flung places like Nigeria were there,” she says. “When I first found out that the Shabbat Project was going international, I knew we had to get involved. It was a natural fit for White City Shabbat; we’re the portal for Jewish life in Tel Aviv. But I did have major reservations. By its very nature, the Shabbos Project has an agenda – namely, for Jews around the world to keep one Shabbat in its entirety. Even though White City Shabbat aims to provide young people in Tel Aviv with content related to Jewish life, the organization doesn’t have such an agenda.”
Putting her reservations aside, Danan went ahead with the Shabbos Project in Tel Aviv. The first thing she did was to change its name to “The Shabbat Project,” as the Yiddish “Shabbos” might have put Israelis off. Indeed, the public had to be approached in a particularly sensitive way.
“We don’t have a Paula Abdul or a Mayim Bialik talking about the beauty of Shabbat, although some secular Israelis jumped on the bandwagon to promote the Shabbat Project, including [Isaac] Boogie Herzog, chairman of the Labor Party,” says Danan.
“Nor did we have a billboard in Rabin Square promoting the event like there was in Times Square. In Buenos Aires, havdala events were even broadcast on live TV. We barely had press coverage, except for an unfriendly article in the Mako news blog hinting at ‘religious coercion,’ and one in an obscure haredi website.”
What White City Shabbat did was send out a list of events to its database, comprising tens of thousands of young people. One would expect that with such poor media resources, the event would have gone out with a whimper, but it actually came in with a bang and didn’t let up.
Danan estimates that there were between 1,000 and 2,000 participants spread out over 11 synagogues and centers. Most were secular young people, about 50 percent Israelis and 50% internationals from the US, Europe and South America. Events included simultaneous meals at the Goren Synagogue, the Great Synagogue and the Lev Center’s international synagogue, where French speakers enjoyed Shabbat meals. There were classes after the meals, hevruta (partner) learning and for the third Shabbat meal, 300 people showed up for a picnic in the park.
“Despite there being probably around 300 people at the picnic at any given time, there wasn’t a cellphone or a cigarette in sight. Usually there’s the odd person smoking or texting, but this time it was noticeably absent,” says Danan.
“Israel has a rougher climate than some Diaspora places,” she reflects, “but the flip side is that people here don’t do things for no reason. They do things that have meaning for them. In a way, doing this in Tel Aviv was easier than in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, people are more set in their ways – either they’re already religious or, if they’re secular, they’re devoutly so. In Tel Aviv, however, there is a strong sense that people are searching for something more, something deeper.”
The events were egalitarian, with men and women participating together in every part. Rabbi Ari Berman, a recent immigrant from Manhattan, gave a talk titled “The Secret Hessed Revolution” in the North Central Synagogue on Shabbat afternoon. Rabbi Gaddy Zerbib, who made aliya from Lyons, France, led an in-depth session about the meaning of Shabbat that promoted much discussion. And Danan herself gave a Torah talk at one of the main synagogues.
“I said that participating in the Shabbat Project, we’re asked to tie ourselves to the collective, to millions of Jews in 400 cities the world over who are taking part in this act of unity. Yet we’re also asked as individuals to take on Shabbat observance. Of course, we sang zmirot (Shabbat songs) and washed our hands before eating bread and said Grace after Meals, but none of it was forced on people.
Nobody had to do anything they didn’t want to do.
The only thing we asked was that people remain quiet for the few minutes of Torah talks. To me, it’s imperative that everyone feel comfortable,” she says.
“In the end, regarding my internal conflict, I had to just let it go and get on with it,” Danan concludes. “The truth is, I’m not sure how much success we had with Shabbat observance. I know for certain about a couple of people who said they kept Shabbat for the first time in their lives. I feel conflicted about this particular yardstick for measuring success, too. On the one hand, to my knowledge there weren’t hundreds of people who kept all of Shabbat. But on the other, maybe even the fact that one Jew in Tel Aviv experienced a Torah-true Shabbat should be enough. And, after all, our mantra has always been what secular author and Tel Aviv resident Ahad Ha’am said: ‘More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.’”