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The Shabbat that Shook the World

November 4, 2014 | by Simon Apfel

Tales from an unprecedented event that took the world by storm.

"Life would never be the same again..."

Melbourne Challah BakeMelbourne Challah Bake

James Kennard, the principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College in Melbourne, was reflecting on an extraordinary Shabbat that many believe has changed the face of Melbourne Jewry. But he might just as easily have been talking about the rest of the Jewish world.

On October 24/25, a Shabbat was felt and celebrated across the globe like none before it. In 460 cities – in LA and London, Melbourne and Moscow, Buenos Aires and Berlin, Tel Aviv and Tokyo, Manila and Montreal, Addis Ababa and Ashkelon, Sao Paulo and Seattle, and everywhere in between – 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 of strategists, social media experts, project managers, designers and writers in Johannesburg ensured the initiative went global in 2014.

The undertaking was a remarkable success and the stories are flooding in.

Beunos Aires Havdallah ConcertBeunos Aires Havdallah Concert

In Buenos Aires, thousands of Jewish families hosted others who'd never before experienced a Shabbat. One individual got hold of a list of the people in her neighborhood and invited all of those with Jewish surnames. Another reported having kept Shabbat even though he’d never even fasted on Yom Kippur.

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. We were so different from one another, but there was something bigger than ourselves pulling us together.”

In Toronto, four hundred families were set up with Shabbat hosts via the Shabbat Project website while a further 1000 families were set up within the community via block parties. “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 reckons she encountered 3000 people on the night.

One particular community in Toronto set Seuda Shlishit tables for 250 people and a 1000 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. This Shabbat, there were 712. Another that normally attracts around 50 attendees had to find space for 400. And these were just the ones Pinto heard about. There were 26 others across the city involved in the Shabbat Project.

In Montevideo, Uruguay, one Friday night service saw 450 people squeeze themselves into a synagogue that seats only 350. Uruguay’s Chief Rabbi Ben-Tzion Spitz who officiated at the service felt like he was reliving his early days as an NCSY youth counselor.

“Many were experiencing their first Kabbalat Shabbat,” he relates. “I paced up and down, showing people the place in the prayer book, encouraging them to participate and asking those already familiar with what we were doing to assist others around them. The singing was loud and emotional and we even managed to dance a few steps in the narrow passageway that was left to walk.”

Hong Kong Challah BakeHong Kong Challah Bake

In Hong Kong, where commemorative dinners took place across the city, one family walked 16 kilometers 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.

Daniel Cohen, a 19-year-old student from Seattle, took it upon himself to run the Shabbat Project across his city. His motivation was clear. “So much of the Seattle community lives in its own little world – nobody really knows each other, so nobody really communicates. This seemed like the perfect opportunity for our community to unite – under the banner of Jewish pride, under the banner of Shabbat.”

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.

Marquees went up in people’s back yards, and dining rooms, living rooms and kitchens were merged, as homes were filled wall-to-wall with guests. 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 family 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, of block Achuza 161 in Raanana hosted a Friday night meal to which he invited his entire building. 60 people came from “all walks of life”.

“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.”

In Dallas, Marcy Abadi Rhoads and four of her neighbors went door-to-door in their neighborhood, dropping off a Shabbat invitation and a set of candles, as well as info about the Shabbat Project, at every house with a mezuzah.

“We were thrilled to have 28 new people over for meals,” she says, “and to have seven families all ‘Keeping it Together’.”

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”.

“I am incredibly grateful to my host family in Sharon who took me into their home –for never once judging me or questioning my level of observance, for walking me to and from shul, and for introducing me to the sacred experience of Shabbat.

“On Saturday evening,” Kirshner continues, “I walked outside to gaze at the magnificent canopy of stars, marveling at God’s creation and reflecting on all that I’d learnt and felt over the past 25 hours.”

Dasi Lefkowitz, a religious woman from French Hill in Jerusalem, says that as she sat at her table alongside 12 non-observant guests she had never met before, there was a sense of something special happening.

“We were not strangers, but one nation, one family. There was singing and dancing until after midnight.”

She describes the communal third meal held in French Hill the next day, at which hundreds of observant and non-observant Jews gathered together, as “surreal in a wonderful way”.

Elsewhere in Israel, 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. And 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.

Sydney Havdallah ConcertSydney Havdallah Concert

In Sydney, close to 10,000 Jews – a quarter of the local Jewish population – were involved in Shabbat Project activities. “The Eastern suburbs of the city were packed with Jews of all denominations and levels of observance greeting each other on the streets and attending overflowing services,” reflects author Tuvia Book, who was on a speaking tour of Australia at the time.

“Once Shabbat had arrived,” says Lindy Wertheim, a Sydney resident observing her first Shabbat, “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. There were more than a few moments when I felt a strong connection with God – a sense not just of Jewishness but of spiritual bliss.”

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!”

These are some of the personal anecdotes. A look at the bigger picture is just as inspiring. 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.

Angola, for example. "We had over 40 Jews confirmed for a Friday night service, kiddush and Shabbat meal," Elazar Benjamin, a resident of Luanda, told the Shabbat Project head office. Meanwhile, the community of Quito, Ecuador enjoyed a Shabbat Project getaway at the hotel “Rumipamba de las' Rosas”, an hour and a half from the city. 100 people went along – one third of the country’s Jewish population. 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 on the Wednesday before the Shabbat Project, somebody even wrote in from the Maldives: “It's a tiny little country made up of islands, just south of India and Sri Lanka, and is 100% Muslim – so I imagine we will probably be the only ones keeping Shabbos here.” The Shabbat Project head office also confirms that Jews in Cambodia, Jamaica Fiji, Finland and Zambia signed up to keep Shabbat.

Of course, the initiative was about more than just Shabbat. Indeed, it was the “Challah Bakes” – mostly held on the Thursday evening before the big Shabbat – 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 around 9,000 loaves.

Not far behind, 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.”

Meanwhile, a Challah Bake in London drew more than 3000 women. The response was so great that there were nearly 800 on the waiting list for the event held at Allianz Park stadium, home of Saracens Rugby Club.

Elsewhere in Europe, a Challah Bake in Paris was presided over by the Chief Pastry Chef to the French President, while a bake in Antwerp drew the most diverse crowd imaginable, from the ultra-Chassidic to the totally irreligious.

Sold out Challah Bakes also took place in scores of cities across the North, South and Central America, including San Diego (billed as one of the largest outdoor cooking events in San Diego history), and Toronto and Mexico City (each with 2,500).

Perhaps the most extraordinary event 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.

And just as the inaugural international Shabbat Project began with a bang, it ended with one too. As the stars came out on October 25, jubilant scenes erupted across the world. And people gave vent to their feelings in the most fitting way possible – through song and dance – flocking to Havdallah concerts on what has now become 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) travelled 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.

But it was Melbourne and Buenos Aires that vied for the biggest events. The concert in the Argentinian capital, organized with the help of the government and broadcast live on national television, drew as many as 13,000 people to a city park adjoining the Buenos Aires planetarium.

And across the ocean, some 10,000 people gathered in Caulfield Park, Melbourne for one of the biggest stand-alone Jewish events in the city’s history.

“We stood under the stars, singing along with the band, mesmerized by the fireworks,” mused Kennard. “But it was not only the entertainment that united us in joy, it was the knowledge that we had been part of something tremendous, and that life would never be the same again. We had kept it together.”

Though not Shabbat observant himself, De Winter has been passionate about the Shabbat Project from the moment he first heard about the idea.

“It’s hard to describe what’s gone on here,” he falters. “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.

“Something interesting happens when your kids have to play an actual board game instead of something that requires button-smashing. Something interesting happens when you sit down on the couch with a blanket, a book, and some tea and you can’t use your remote to catch up on the oft-disappointing-these-days-but-you-can’t-stop-watching Grey’s Anatomy. Something interesting happens when you sit at a lunch table with friends and just talk, since you can’t use your phones, you can’t Instagram, you can’t just take a quick work call, you can’t just watch that cute panda video everyone’s sharing on Facebook.”

Martel was brought on board to help capture the magic at the Toronto Challah Bake and Havdalah Concert.

“And 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.


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