It's 'Jewish Independence Day' in the United States

This year, October 24/25 is the new July 4, as Jews across America get ready to relinquish their dependence on screens and mass media.

Mayim Bialik of the hit sitcom 'Big Bang Theory' (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mayim Bialik of the hit sitcom 'Big Bang Theory'
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This year, October 24/25 is the new July 4, as Jews across America get ready to relinquish their dependence on screens and mass media, embracing the deeply human ideals of the Shabbos Project and joining together with Jews all over the world for just one Shabbat on which we will, in the words of Mordechai Ben David, “all be free.”
The Shabbos Project – the initiative that aims to unite Jews of all levels of observance across the world to observe a full Shabbat together – has really caught fire in Dallas, Texas.
Not that the rebooted Dallas TV series is going to be doing a “Shabbat Special” episode, of course. Nor are the Dallas Cowboys planning on substituting a challah for a ball when they go up against the New York Giants on the Sunday preceding the Shabbos Project. And Vanilla Ice has, as of the time of writing this, has yet to commit to keeping that Shabbat.
But the fire is spreading, and Dallas’s Jews of all types are starting to gather together around its warm center.
The Shabbos Project efforts in Dallas are spearheaded by Rabbi Mayer Hurwitz, who for the past few months has been working alongside a dynamic and innovative group of community activists to bring the Shabbos Project to as many of the city’s 60,000 Jews as possible.
“The thought of being able to introduce the warmth and beauty of Shabbos to Jews who may not have had the opportunity to experience it for themselves was very exciting,” says Hurwitz. “The challenge of mobilizing the entire Jewish community in a relatively short amount of time was daunting to me at first, but I decided to jump in. And the sea is splitting…” A Texas-wide Challah Bake will kick off the event at the Dallas Jewish Community Center, and on the Shabbos itself, special commemorative dinners and programmes will be taking place across Dallas.
Hurwitz and his team have been inundated with inquiries and messages of support from Jews across the spectrum. Shearith Israel, Dallas’s largest Conservative synagogue (with a congregation of thousands), promoted the Shabbos Project over Yom Kippur. A fundraising drive has received support from many quarters, with each of the 25 hours of the Shabbat auctioned off at a recent successful “callathon”. A prominent businessman has delayed a trip to Asia to be in town over that Shabbat.
“I think whether they are observant or not, people are inspired and energized by the prospect of the whole Jewish world keeping Shabbos,” says Hurwitz.
What has delighted him the most is the way shomrei-Shabbat Jews throughout the city have come forward to open up their homes over that weekend.
“Parents are having their kids sleep in their rooms to make extra space for guests,” he says.
“Communications are going out asking families how many beds they have, how much space there is at their tables, who they know who would be interested. This is going to bring people together in amazing ways.”
Mostly though, Hurwitz isn’t surprised at the way the initiative has caught on, he believes the Shabbos Project is the perfect fit for a community known for its unity, warmth and openness.
“We get on well with each other here in Dallas – and then there is of course that Southern hospitality that we are famous for,” Hurwitz says. “I believe this, coupled with the resurgence of Jewish life we’ve witnessed in recent years, is why the Shabbos Project fits right in.”
Detroit, the largest city in Michigan, is home to an estimated Jewish population of almost 100,000. This tight-knit but diverse Jewish community has over the years produced an array of distinguished personalities, including artists, national jurists, civil activists, civic leaders and US Senators. The community is particularly renowned for providing a refuge for thousands of Soviet Jews who fled the USSR in the 1980s.
Rabbi Bentzy Schechter is heading up the Detroit hub of the Shabbos Project, while coordinating much of what goes on across the US as a whole. Alongside a team of volunteers, he has worked with local community leaders to create Shabbat events that are as inclusive as possible.
Some of the expected highlights include a Challah Bake at the grand Emagine Royal Oak banquet and conference center, and a Havdalah concert at the Young Israel of Oak Park, featuring energetic New Jersey performer Michael Nadata and his band.
Publicity efforts have intensified in the build-up, with Shabbat “survival kits” – including candles, grape juice, a Kiddush cup, Birkat Hamazon cards, and spices, matches and a special multi-wicked candle for Havdallah – to be gifted to people unaccustomed to keeping Shabbat.
These give-aways will complement the “Unofficial Guide” to keeping Shabbat and Shabbat “Toolkit” booklets developed by the Shabbos Project head office in Johannesburg, and being distributed in Jewish communities across the world.
Schechter believes the Shabbos Project has arrived at a pivotal time in Jewish history.
“I think the recent events in Israel proved a watershed moment for Jewish people across the world,” he says. “Many of us suddenly lost our sense of security – that ease and comfort we have become accustomed to in recent times – and with the rug pulled out from under our feet, many felt a deep urge not only to unite, but to find renewed meaning in our Jewish identity.
“The Shabbos Project is a chance to consolidate and deepen that experience.”
Houston is home to around 50,000 Jews, a great many of them residing in the leafy suburb of Meyerland. Fittingly, the city most famous for its international space center has produced a number of Jewish astronauts, including Jeffrey Hoffman – the first-ever Jewish astronaut – and Judith Resnik.
Since the late 1970s, around 400 South African Jewish families have settled in Houston, so it’s no surprise then one of the key figures running the Shabbos Project in the city is one Rabbi Zalman Lazarus – himself a South African expat.
“When I heard about what happened in South Africa during Parshat Lech Lecha last year, I knew immediately it wasn’t going to end there,” he says.
He and a few others got together, determined to try and replicate that success in Houston. Straight away, they made the decision not to take too active a role.
“As the rabbis of this city – while we are quite a diverse bunch and represent a wide range of world views – we didn’t want this to be a topdown thing. What we are doing is putting the word out there, gently encouraging people, and then letting it happen organically.”
The city’s synagogues are also playing a crucial role, punting the Shabbos Project in the weeks leading up to 24/25 October. Fortunately, they seem to have a receptive audience.
“People feel more spiritual at this time of year – more introspective, more connected to their Judaism, more willing to take on something new,” says Lazarus.
With characteristic Chabad chutzpah, he has been encouraging those already signed up for the Shabbos Project to get others involved.
The approach seems to be working, as spontaneous Shabbat invitations between friends and neighbors are being proffered across the city.
“We have people saying to their friends and acquaintances, ‘Hey, take a look at this. You only need to commit to one Shabbos, and in any case it might not be as difficult or as inaccessible as you thought. It’s something you might in fact want to do and have your family join you in doing.’ “Fortunately, most people seem very excited about the idea – especially when they realize how many people around the world are doing it. The hope is that they in turn get their friends involved – so there’s a chain reaction.”
Ultimately, what drives Lazarus is a firm belief that Shabbat is not something that belongs to a particular kind of Jew or a certain denomination; that it’s something for everyone.
The first step, he says, is to clear away the misconceptions.
“We need to banish the idea that Shabbos is a burden, inconvenient, restrictive. If we can do this, then we have a golden opportunity here to create some magic.”
The Five Towns
The Five Towns – an informal grouping of villages and hamlets adjoining bordering Far Rockaway, Queens, in the state of New York – is home to one of the most active, and actively Jewish, diaspora communities.
The area has one the highest proportions of Jewish residents in the US, with Jews making up as much as three-quarters of the population in some of the Five Towns. Large estates open up onto tree-lined streets filled with the sights and sounds of Jewish life, and the Towns are peppered with bustling shuls, renowned yeshivas and an extraordinary array of kosher shops.
Rabbi Yaakov Trump heard about the Shabbos Project from his mother, who lives in South Africa and was swept up in the initiative when it was first introduced there last year.
Hearing about her experiences, he felt a strong pull to try out the initiative on home soil.
As a first step, he helped set up a core team of volunteers who then went about raising awareness.
Perhaps the biggest publicity boost happened when South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein – the originator of the Shabbos Project whose vision has enabled the project to go global – spent Shabbat in the Five Towns during a short trip to the US in September.
“The Chief Rabbi spoke at four of the biggest shuls in the neighborhood, reaching over 3000 people over that one Shabbat,” says Trump. “His presence stirred people into action, and really took the Shabbos Project to the next level. Everyone is talking about it and wants to be a part of it.”
12 main hubs have been identified across the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, with shuls throughout the region connecting those unaccustomed to Shabbat observance with shomrei-Shabbat host families. Most strikingly, says Trump, a number of Orthodox shuls are pairing with their Conservative counterparts, running joint meals and other events.
“The Shabbos Project – and the mitzvah of Shabbat in general – seems to be something everyone can rally together around.”
There are also 11 schools participating actively in the Shabbos Project, hosting special assemblies, preparing Shabbat gift bags and decorations in the build-up, and hosting events and activities on the Shabbat itself.
The Challah Bake is expected to be the biggest of its kind in the greater New York area, and will feature Eitan Katz and his band, while the well-loved New York a capella group, the Maccabeats, will perform at the Saturday night Havdalah Concert.
“Everything is starting to come together, and it’s just incredibly exciting,” says Trump.
“Day after day I’m getting calls from organizations bringing in new groups of people, and running new activities, and it’s really snowballing into a huge operation.”
One of the challenges, he says, is getting the word out to those who are not part of the Five Town’s large orthodox contingent. Spurred on by a huge Shabbos Project billboard that will soon be going up in New York’s Time Square (thanks to the efforts of Rabbi Dovid Cohen of Young Israel of Upper West Side), the Five Towns team have taken out full-page adverts in the major newspapers, and are also looking at postcards, large public displays, and ads at local shopping centers in a bid to ensure “no Jew gets left behind”.
“We need to move beyond our bubble and reach the neighborhoods and outlying areas where Jews aren’t connected to the vibrant communities in the center,” says Trump. “The Shabbos Project is an opportunity to really expand and unite, to open up our insular communities and invite everyone in.”
He talks about “raising the bar.”
“For those already keeping Shabbat, this is an opportunity to deepen our understanding and enrich our experience. For those not accustomed to keeping it, this is the chance to experience something new and invigorating.
And all of us will be keeping it together,” he says.
Trump believes the Shabbat of 24/25 October can be a catalyst for unprecedented unity among Jews.
“We have experienced unity over this last summer, but unfortunately Jews usually only feel connected to one another when there is a crisis,” Trump says. “This time, we are hoping to unite around something positive.”
Cherry Hill
New Jersey’s Jewish population numbers around half a million people, of whom around 50,000 live in southern New Jersey and the town of Cherry Hill.
The community falls under the jurisdiction of the Jewish Federation of Southern Jersey (JFSJ) – a multi-denominational body that has emerged as one of the key driving forces behind the Shabbos Project in South Jersey.
Last year, around the time the Shabbos Project was lighting up the Jewish community in South Africa, the Federation conducted an in-depth assessment of the local Jewish population.
One of the key findings was that informal/ cultural Jewish experiences were often valued more than religious ones, especially among teenagers. Now that may be about to change.
“I think it’s the way these ‘religious experiences’ are sometimes packaged, coupled with the negative preconceptions people have, which have contributed to this feeling of estrangement from the ideas and sacred traditions that have made Jews Jewish for thousands of years,” says Rabbi Yisroel Tzvi Serebrowski, Director of Torah Links New Jersey, who will be working closely with the JFSJ in bringing the Shabbos Project to Cherry Hill. “The general feeling with the Shabbos Project is that this something new and compelling, something with universal appeal. It may be just what people have been waiting for.”
Serebrowski works alongside a team comprising religious leaders, heads of schools, community activists and those who are simply passionate about the initiative.
“In our steering committee meetings, we check in our various group affiliations at the door. We see it as vital that this initiative remains neutral. It’s not ‘the Shabbos project with a bunch of logos attached to it’, it’s just ‘the Shabbos Project’ – and this is how we are able to appeal to Jews of all denominations and religious observance.”
The Shabbos Project celebrations will kick off with a community-wide Challah Bake and wine-tasting event at the Katz Jewish Community Center on Thursday night.
Along with the Sons of Israel and Young Israel community centers, the Torah Links campus is expected to be one of the mains hubs of the Shabbos Project over a Shabbat that coincides with the organization’s 10th year anniversary celebrations. The center will host special services featuring a capella singers and a large marquise has been erected in the parking lot (which will be closed to cars), to host Shabbat meals for up to 1000 people.
The Cherry Hill community are also eyeing the Shabbat of 24/25 October to launch a new eruv that has been set up across the east side of the town, with a dedication ceremony to follow on Saturday night officiated by Cherry Hill’s mayor, who is Jewish.
“This would be a very fitting occasion for the launch,” says Serebrowski. “Just as our eruv encircles virtually the entire Jewish community, this Shabbat will be all-embracing, all-inclusive, unifying.”
Recently, he has been receiving phone calls from people he never expected would want to be involved.
“It seems everyone wants to know about the Shabbos Project and what keeping Shabbat entails,” he says. “Clearly, something is being awakened.”
More than 100 cities in the USA have signed up for the international Shabbos Project, joining 340 cities worldwide that will be ushering in Shabbat together on 24/25 October 2014.
For more information, or to sign up, visit