Barry Newman
Barry Newman

The Project Shabbat: The Great Unifier

Thousands of Jews throughout the world have marked on their calendars the upcoming weekend of 22-23 October (17 Cheshvan 5782), Parshat Vayeira, in anticipation of the annual “happening”, The Shabbat Project. As conceived in 2013 by the Chief Rabbi of South Africa Warren Goldstein, the idea of an international acknowledgement of Shabbat and its unique contribution to the religion, history and culture of the Jewish people has become an event not be missed or overlooked. Over a million participants – representing Jewish communities in nearly 1700 cities from around the globe – engage in a wide variety of activities that celebrate the wisdom expressed by Ahad Ha’am nearly a century ago: More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.

Those unfamiliar with this program might be somewhat confused as to what The Shabbat Project involves. It is not, first of all, a religious version of Meatless Monday; no one is being asked to set aside for twenty-five hours driving, cooking or WhatsApping. Nor is it a hippie-ish type of event in which the spirit of the late Rabbi Carlebach pervades over crowds of twenty- and thirty-something participants enraptured by Shabbat-centric singing and dancing. Carlebach minyanim are often part of The Project Shabbat fun, but it is Shabbat that is front and center, not the fervor that is being generated.

Rabbi Goldstein’s vision was to bring into focus not the restrictions of Shabbat but, rather, the spiritual and emotional freedom that the day provides. That which drives us during the week – professional pressures, economic competition, screen addiction – are for a brief period replaced by that which is less stressful but far more meaningful – prayer, study, family, friends. The many communities that have embraced The Shabbat Project have found innovative ways to enhance the understanding and appreciation of Shabbat, on both personal and group levels. And, more importantly, the activities and functions that take place are equally enjoyable and memorable regardless of where one is positioned on the spectrum of religiosity.

Theories abound as to why this project has become so universally successful. Perhaps a personal void that few dared to admit exists is filled when Shabbat candles are lit. Or a longing to reconnect with something in the past, such as might be invoked by the kiddish over wine that is recited on Friday evening. Maybe it provides an alternative to the voice of rebellion, and a readiness to admit that the Torah – or at least the part of the Torah that deals with Shabbat – may not be as irrelevant as many believe. No matter, really. Both Rabbi Goldstein and the many local organizers who devote countless hours to ensure that planned activities go smoothly – and with COVID that has not been easy – are for the most part less interested in why the project so loudly resonates than that it be a meaningful experience for the participants. And if the project’s success in past years provide any sort of a barometer, the one this year is worth looking forward to.

What might be in store for participants? Well, for example:

  • Workshops covering the ins and outs of baking challah have proven to be extremely popular. Few realize that what gets selected off bakery shelves on Friday morning is more than simply a twisted concoction of flour and water. A very specific set of steps must be followed in order to make a challah kosher and acceptable for the Shabbat table. Experienced bakers share their knowledge – and secrets – in these workshops.
  • What better way to enjoy Shabbat than with cake, kugel and whiskey? Neighborhood kiddushes have become a very popular method to introduce this special day to those unfamiliar with the unique atmosphere of Shabbat. High level explanations of what Shabbat is all about are, of course, part of the activity, which rarely fails to whet the appetite for something more substantial than rugalach and schmaltz herring.
  • Many look forward to the Friday evening Oneg Shabbat that takes place in a number of communities. Snacks, songs and stories stir up the senses as an atmosphere of friendship in concert with spiritual awareness truly enhances the holiness of the day, which invariably continues into the following morning as well.
  • Gift boxes of Shabbat goodies are delivered to those unable to leave their homes due to disability or illness. A flower together with a Shabbat song or two guarantees making a lonely person feel less depressed and unwell, and what better way can there be to honor Shabbat?
  • Express appreciation for the selflessness and courage of our soldiers who protect us 24/7 by bringing to a local base baked goods and delicacies that will make their
    Shabbat memorable.
  • The Shabbat Project aims to close the great religious divide by scheduling events in which members of both the dati and secular communities can join in together. Activities geared toward the youth – relevant lectures, music recitals, spirited discussion – in which youngsters from both Bnei Akiva and Tzofim participate enable the two groups to get to know each other in an informal atmosphere, and share informative points of view that build trust and understanding.
  • Dueling Banjos? Move aside for Dueling Cholent. Maestros of the craft go head-to-head on whose is the best in town. And, of course, the competition aims to answer the age-old question debated by erudite and well learned scholars: a raw, whole egg as part of the mixture or not?

The possible activities for The Shabbat Project are virtually limitless, and each year new ones are conceived and put into practice. Rabbi Goldstein, needless to say, is extensively involved in what is going on and, in particular, gives special attention to how the project is embraced by the different and varying communities in Israel. He has not yet been disappointed by the enthusiasm that is felt throughout this country, and this year should not be any different.

The Internet is literally exploding with guidelines and resources on how best to plan The Shabbat Project festivities. The best starting point is the Israeli Facebook page that is devoted to the project –  https://www.facebook.com/TheShabbosProjectIL/ . In addition, project organizers will be more than happy to provide assistance and guidance – in either Hebrew or English – on becoming a participant in this very special celebration.

Once a year the phrase Shabbat Shalom – as expressed in hundreds of different languages – take on additional significance and meaning for millions who are introduced to the magic of this day. Don’t miss this opportunity.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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