The Shabbat that shook the world

An estimated one million Jews in 460 cities and 64 countries took part in last month’s inaugural international Shabbat Project.

THE SHABBAT PROJECT partner hubs in Ra’anana, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv and Panama City. (photo credit: PR)
THE SHABBAT PROJECT partner hubs in Ra’anana, Hong Kong, Tel Aviv and Panama City.
(photo credit: PR)
A Shabbat was felt and celebrated across the globe like none before it on October 24-25. In 460 cities – Los Angeles and London, Melbourne and Moscow, Buenos Aires and Berlin, Tel Aviv and Tokyo, Manila and Montreal, Addis Ababa and Ashkelon, Sao Paulo and Seattle – Jews of all walks of life united to observe a full Shabbat together.
The Shabbat Project was first introduced in South Africa in 2013 by the country’s Chief Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein who, together with creative director Laurence Horwitz and a talented team in Johannesburg, ensured the initiative went global in 2014.
Here are some examples of how it played out around the world.
• In Buenos Aires, thousands of Jewish families hosted others who’d never before experienced a Shabbat.
Iara Antebi Sacca, a local college student, attended an inner city youth dinner for 100 people. “The energy was amazing. I’ve never been to such a meaningful, unified event,” she said. “We were so different from one another, but there was something bigger than ourselves pulling us together.”
• Toronto was one of a number of North American Jewish urban centers where a good portion of the Conservative and Reform synagogues got behind the Shabbat Project. “We had 24 participating shuls who had programs running all evening and day,” says Dena Bensalmon, who spent the Friday night “Shabbat Project hopping” across the city to experience as many of these events as possible. She estimated she encountered 3,000 people.
One particular community set Seuda Shlishit tables for 250 people and a 1,000 showed up. Many of the city’s synagogues reported overflows.
• Simon Pinto reports the same phenomenon in São Paulo, Brazil. At one of the city’s synagogues, 30 people on average attend a regular Shabbat service. For the Shabbat Project, there were 712.
• In Hong Kong, where commemorative dinners took place across the city, one family walked 16 km to shul.
And in Rotterdam, Holland, Yehuda Vorst who runs the local Chabad House, reported that some walked more than an hour to get to shul on Friday evening and again on Shabbat morning, while those not within walking distance stayed at hotels in the area.
Street dinners, some involving up to a thousand people, took place all over the globe, including one in virtually every Jewish neighborhood in Johannesburg, and another in Melbourne that sat people at one long table stretching for almost half a kilometer.
The Hoff family of Golders Green, London, hosted 100 people for lunch in a big tent in their garden, while in the adjoining suburb of Hendon, the Nissim family hosted a full Shabbaton in their house for 150.
Melbourne’s Simon de Winter hosted a Friday night dinner for 70 friends. His one condition – that they at least walk to his house and back.
“I was amazed,” he says. “They didn’t just come for Friday night, they returned for lunch the next day. And they didn’t just walk, their whole families kept Shabbat in full.”
In Aventura, Florida, Yisrael Abisror planned to host 15 guests for dinner in his home. Almost overnight, 15 became 125, and a local hall, a team of caterers, and a group of community volunteers had to be procured.
Persha Valman, in Ra’anana, hosted a Friday night meal to which he invited his entire building. 60 people came from “all walks of life,” he said. “It was a wonderful evening of great food, great songs and getting to know each other,” he says. “For most of us, it was the first time we got to meet our neighbors.”
A community in Sharon, Massachusetts, had scores of people sign up to keep an entire Shabbat for the first time.
“At Shabbat dinner on Friday night, the atmosphere was charged with ecstatic celebration through song, prayer, great food, and community,” says Robbie Kirshner, who describes himself as a “minimally practicing Conservative Jew.”
“The following evening, I walked outside to gaze at the magnificent canopy of stars, marveling at God’s creation and reflecting on all that I’d learned and felt over the past 25 hours.”
Tel Aviv hosted an assortment of colorful, innovative events, including a Carlebach-style Kabbalat Shabbat and champagne kiddush on Frishman beach, and a potluck picnic at Independence Park. In Beit Shemesh, after-dinner “Oneg” Shabbat celebrations took place all over the city, with refreshments, and singing and dancing spilling out onto the streets.
In Johannesburg, where the Shabbat Project was even more warmly welcomed than it was last year, road closure signs went up announcing that entire streets were “Keeping it together,” and public thoroughfares thronged with food tables and strollers and children playing. And in Cape Town, hotels in and around the landmark Gardens Shul offered special “Shabbat Project sleepover rates,” and the Herzlia Jewish day school paired up older kids and younger kids living in the same vicinity to walk together to shul.
In Melbourne, 20,000 of the 60,000 strong-community signed up, and people described the Saturday morning walk to shul “like walking to a football game” – there were just so many people out in the street. And in Sydney, close to 10,000 Jews – a quarter of the local Jewish population – were involved in Shabbat Project activities.
“Once Shabbat had arrived,” said first-time Shabbat observer Lindy Wertheim, “it was such a pleasure not having the distraction of a beeping mobile phone or the constant flicker of the TV . There was nothing urgent to attend to. I could simply relax and go with the flow.”
For others, like Joelle Chandler, the joys were of an earthier variety.
“This was the first time I really felt relaxed on a Saturday.
Homework was not an excuse to break Shabbat; Shabbat was an excuse to ignore homework!”
A look at the bigger picture proved just as eye-opening.
In England, over 100 communities in 22 cities took part.
In Israel, hundreds of thousands of secular Israelis joined Shabbat Project festivities. In addition to Sydney, Melbourne and Johannesburg, Toronto, Miami and Buenos Aires all reported extraordinary participation figures.
Yet it is the more unlikely partner cities that have really captured people’s imagination, and perhaps best encapsulate the spirit of the Shabbat Project. Like Coca Cola, it seems the Shabbat Project is everywhere.
In Luanda, Angola, for example – more than 40 Jews participated in a Friday night service, kiddush and Shabbat meal. And in Quito, Ecuador, 100 people – one third of the country’s Jewish population – enjoyed a Shabbat getaway at a hotel outside the city.
In Graaff-Reinet in South Africa’s Karoo desert, the town’s only Jewish inhabitant joined two fellow Jews who were passing through for a Shabbat none of them will easily forget, and there were even people keeping Shabbat in the Maldives, Cambodia, Jamaica Fiji, Finland and Zambia.
It was these stories that prompted the renowned rabbi and philosopher Nathan Lopes Cardozo, to describe the Shabbat Project as no less than “an unprecedented revolution in modern Jewish life.”
Of course, the initiative was about more than just Shabbat. Indeed, it was the “Challah Bakes” that set the Shabbat Project celebrations in motion. These extraordinary events saw women of all ages and levels of observance gather together en masse in cities around the world to prepare Challah dough, often accompanied by live music, and spontaneous singing and dancing.
At the Miami Beach Convention Center, 4,600 women combined 10,000 eggs, 3,960 pounds of sugar, more than 25,000 ounces of vegetable oil, 250 pounds of salt, 12,320 pounds of flour, 80,256 ounces of water and 154 pounds of yeast into 9,000 loaves.
Buenos Aires drew around 4,500 women to a city park next to a lake, with a queue stretching for three blocks. Viviana Tarrab, one of 300 volunteers on the night, witnessed four generations of her family “kneading it together.”
“I couldn’t believe the joy in my mother’s face as she explained to her nieces, cousins, and even her great-granddaughters at the table how to prepare challah,” she says. “Some ‘posh’ friends of mine who’d never touched flour before were crying – literally crying – from the excitement.”
But perhaps the most extraordinary Challah Bake took place at Johannesburg’s War Memorial, where more than 3,000 of the 5,000 who had signed up braved a torrential downpour, and many remained afterwards to dance and sing together in the rain.
Just as the inaugural international Shabbat Project began with a bang, it ended with one too, as people around the world flocked to havdala concerts on what was officially the busiest weekend of the year for Jewish musicians.
A capella phenomenon, the Maccabeats joined the IDF choir for a concert in San Diego covered by local TV news; Israeli musician Gad Elbaz and folk singer Shlomo Katz played to 1,800 in Toronto; and after kicking off the Five Towns Challah Bake, Eitan Katz (Shlomo’s brother) traveled over 3,200 miles, ending Dallas’s Shabbat Project festivities with a unity concert at the Metroplex. Meanwhile, Soul Farm rocked out at Manhattan Beach, and UK pop sensation Alex Clare joined the Moshav Band at a wet but spirited open-air concert in Johannesburg.
In Buenos Aires, as many as 13,000 people attended a concert organized with the help of the government and broadcast live on national television, and in Melbourne, some 10,000 people gathered in Caulfield Park for one of the biggest stand-alone Jewish events in the city’s history.
“It’s hard to describe what’s gone on here,” De Winter said. “It’s simply overwhelming. The impact has been profound. The city has changed.”
Ali Martell, a well-known writer/photographer from Toronto, rediscovered Shabbat after observing it for the first time in years. She was brought on board to help capture the magic at the Toronto Challah Bake and Havdala Concert.
“In between those two busy and full-of-lovely-energy events,” she says, “I stopped, I rested, I put the camera down, and I kept Shabbat. It wasn’t the first time. But it’s the first one that got under my skin. This is a Shabbat that will stay with me.”
As it will with many others.