By MARGIE PENSAK
On Shabbos Parashas Lech Lecha, Jews from all walks of life, stripes, ages, and stages — living everywhere from megalopolises to towns in far-flung corners of the earth — were united to celebrate our shared heritage, thanks to The International Shabbat Project. This global, grassroots movement was born in South Africa in 2013, when South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein posed, ‘What if we could get the entire local Jewish community to keep one complete Shabbos together — from sundown until stars out?’
Little could Rabbi Goldstein imagine then that his local campaign would proliferate globally. During the inaugural International Shabbat Project, held in 2014, an estimated one million Jews in 465 cities around the world participated. This year’s stats have yet to be revealed, but those numbers, no doubt, will surpass last year’s, of 1,150 cities and 95 countries. Inyan magazine had the pleasure of speaking to just some of this year’s International Shabbat Project participants.
Orit Esther Riter, Ramat Beit Shemesh
I had a guest over for Shabbat, a young Israeli lady in her upper 20s from Modiin who was never at a Challah Bake event. She attended the one that I led where I live, in Ramat Beit Shemesh, and was very moved by the experience. She was very impressed by the many faces and walks of life, the feeling of achdut, and the happiness over doing a mitzvah — that was very surprising for her.
After the Challah Bake on Thursday night, she came to my house with her college friend — a girl who is like a daughter to us — until Motzoei Shabbat. It was a very lovely Shabbat and the challah came out amazing. She was very impressed by the fact that a family whom she didn’t even know was willing to open up their hearts and their home to her and make her feel part of the family.
Whatever Torah insights my husband or I shared, she absorbed like a sponge. She even cried on Erev Shabbos, because she got very emotional over some of the things that were said; she was able to relate to them. On Shabbat, I gave a class locally in honor of the Shabbat Project. She came and heard a lot of stories and singing. For seudat shlishit, we ate with a family in whose home I gave a class.
It was her first time experiencing what it was like to be in a fully shomer Torah and mitzvot community. She was extremely impressed, and when she left, she was teary-eyed. You could see she was very, very moved by the entire experience. She told us she is committed to living ‘more Jewish’ and Shabbat-focused due to her experience. B’ezrat Hashem, we will remain in touch with her.
Arielle Wolfson, Lawrence, New York
I housed two families and hosted 52 adults and 26 kids for Friday night dinner during the Shabbos Project. I cooked everything myself, because I knew these women would appreciate homemade food. I did a lot of Moroccan cooking, and they loved it — lamb tagine and couscous; it was pretty exotic. It was a mix of people, all from the JRE, a kiruv organization in Westchester run by my sister-in-law and her husband.
For some of them, it was their first; for others, it was their third Shabbos Project. They started keeping some mitzvos. I don’t think any of them are completely there yet, but it’s a slow process and they’re getting there. They are definitely interested in doing more; everyone was very excited.
Rabbi Paysach Krohn spent the entire Shabbos here, and he spoke Friday night and at shalosh seudos. They loved him. He told beautiful stories about his travels and all the different types of Jews he’s met all over the world, and about their commitment to and mesirus nefesh for Yiddishkeit. That really touched them; I think that was what moved them the most.
I think the nicest phone call my sister-in-law got was from a mother who was so happy she was crying. She said she was still overwhelmed from the whole Shabbos experience, and it was most impactful on her ninth-grade daughter, whom she had to drag to come here. We sat her daughter next to my tenth-grade daughter. She’s in a Conservative school and didn’t show any interest in anything Orthodox before. But after this Shabbos, she said, “Mom, I can’t believe I met someone who is Orthodox, and she is so cool and with-it. I didn’t know Orthodox people could be cool also! She’s interesting and interested in so many interesting things; we had so much to talk about and so much in common. I never thought I would have anything in common with an Orthodox girl.”
My daughter is keeping up the relationship, which I thought was really nice. Her mother was just so happy that she met someone Orthodox with whom her daughter could connect.
Five of the women were so inspired by our Shabbos that they are coming back to our Challah Bake this Wednesday night in Long Beach, at the Sands. This year, as many other cities did, we decided to hold the Challah Bake after the Shabbos Project, because it was too soon after Yom Tov. We’re expecting 1,200 women and girls at the event.
As much as we think that we are doing it for them, they do a lot for us. It is very inspiring to see people who have to sacrifice so much to keep Shabbos. It is not something that is easy for them, yet they want so much to do it, and they do. It makes our Shabbos more meaningful to meet people like this — it uplifts our Shabbos! I will be meeting up with some of them during the year, so I can keep in touch with them. Keeping up the connection is what it’s all about!
E.R., Kiev, Ukraine
I come to Kiev for Yom Tov all the time to volunteer at the Orach Chaim school, where there are separate girls’ and boys’ dorms. A lot of the kids in school come from really irreligious homes — some don’t even know what being a Jew means or that they are Jewish, although they are all Jewish. I took it upon myself to make the Shabbos Project a huge event for these children in fifth grade and up.
Every day, all the older kids eat together. So during each lunch break, beginning on Tuesday, we did something to build up to the Shabbos Project. On Tuesday, we sent out invitations to come to the dorm; on Wednesday, we told them about the Shabbos Project and hung up balloons and created a lot of things with the Shabbos Project logo.
The students were a little confused, because they had no clue what was going on — no one ever did anything like that for them in school — so we had someone tell them about the Shabbos Project, and they got all excited. On Thursday, we hung up four raffle bags with four options of what the students could do for the Shabbos Project — for example, light candles, make Kiddush, don’t touch your phone, etc. All kids wrote their names on tickets with the logo on them, indicating which they wanted to do.
On Friday, it was like a huge party. We decorated the dining room and gave out little papers with the logo on it that said: “Don’t Be Scared to Be Different!” since they come from a country where people know nothing and keep nothing because there is barely any knowledge of Yiddishkeit.
I worked in the girls’ dorm, and there were three to five additional girls who came for Shabbos who know and keep nothing. In the boys’ dorm, there were eight kids instead of the usual two or three. It was an amazing, exciting Shabbos and everyone thanked me for it. On Motzoei Shabbos, we had a pizza party.
Just last week, when we said “Good Shabbos” to them, one of them asked, “What does Good Shabbos mean?” How much these kids understood about Shabbos, how much they did, how much they kept, I don’t know for sure, but I can guarantee that every single kid realized that something huge was happening during the Shabbos Project Shabbos. A lot of them told me they want to come back for next Shabbos. This is only from Hashem — that is why it was so successful!
Our celebration of the Shabbos Project was very low key but meaningful. We invited a young adult in our community for Friday night dinner who often lashes out at the religious community. Why did we invite him? After I had occasion to converse with him, I discovered that he is sweet and intelligent but very angry at the way he was treated by the religious community after he suffered abuse. He wants to connect, he maintains religious observance, yet he feels that the community rejects him. Maybe it was a risk to invite him, but he was happy to accept the offer.
When he came, he was completely different from his public persona — very soft-natured, sensitive, and still connected to brachos and bentching. So although we were not part of a massive public gathering, we experienced Shabbos dinner as something more than just food. Our invitation also communicated that our guest was welcomed, accepted and cared about, which is something that he might have needed more than chicken.
When we light the Shabbos candles now, the experience will enable me to think about the flame of someone’s neshamah. If licht bentching is important, how much more so is recognizing the light inside a person …
Gabriella Marcellus, Norfolk, Virginia
I am a student at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, but I went to Norfolk, Virginia, this year and last for the Shabbos Project. During the Friday night dinner, I was asked by Rabbi Rudin, of the Norfolk Kollel, to speak about how I was inspired by last year’s Shabbos Project.
I got up and told everyone how I had stopped going to synagogue in my little isolated hometown outside of Richmond, and I hadn’t done Shabbat in a relatively long time. When I got to college, I went to a Hillel program and I thought Rabbi Litt was nice and his family was nice and the students were nice, so I decided to go to the Shabbos Project last year.
It was kind of a catalyst, because this past year I have become a baalas teshuvah — I’m shomer Shabbos and becoming shomer kashrus and tznius. Looking back, I realize how much I have grown since last year’s Shabbos Project. I thanked everyone for welcoming me; the community has really embraced me. I go from house to house and play with everyone’s kids. We have all these wonderful conversations and I sleep over at their houses and learn how every family does it, because Judaism is based in the home. The community has literally become a home for me.
I even brought my mom from Richmond to the Shabbos Project this year, because my family is secular. I felt comfortable enough to bring her and she did all of Shabbos with me. Last year, we were offered a $75 gift card if we participated in the Shabbos Project from beginning to end. I figured I would go because I needed money for my textbooks, so I went for the gift card. Obviously, I got more than the gift card, because I went on Birthright afterwards and grew in my observance.
Everyone [at the Shabbos Project last year] was so sweet and so nice, and I realized, ‘Oh, my goodness, you can do this every Shabbos if you really want to!’ I remember meeting a fellow student there who was saying, “One day, maybe, I would be frum — it would be so great.” So I thought, “Why don’t you just act upon it?” Then, I thought to myself, ‘I’ll miss keeping Shabbos too; I need this too. I guess I will have to act upon it too!’ So I did!”
Rabbi Dovid Lewis, South Manchester Synagogue, Bowdon, England
We made 65 Shabbos gift baskets filled with challah, wine, candles, chocolates, etc., for the older members of our community, including a 104-year-old man. They were hand-delivered to their homes by younger members. We held, for the first time ever, a Shabbos Project Friday night dinner. It was attended by over 230 people. Our usual numbers for a Shabbaton are 80-100, and our biggest previous meal was 150 for a Purim seudah on a Sunday, so it was quite an increase. We also had a large contingent of younger families with young children, and they all stayed until the very end — 10:00 p.m. Obviously, everyone was enjoying themselves.
But the highlight for me was a casual conversation that I had with a lady during the meal. She is not religious at all and usually turns up just for a short while on Yom Kippur (and not every year!). Her husband had gotten stuck on a train coming back from London and was therefore not at the dinner. I asked her if she had heard from him, and she looked me in the eye and said, “Would you believe it, but I haven’t brought my cellphone with me. I walked here and didn’t carry anything. So far, I am keeping Shabbat this week!”