Jerusalem cafés to ‘open for Shabbat,’ but not for business

New initiative looks to bring together secular and religious Jerusalemites on Friday nights at local coffee houses, without the coffee

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Illustrative photo of Orthodox Jews walking on a street in Jerusalem during  Shabbat. (Corinna Kern/Flash 90)
Illustrative photo of Orthodox Jews walking on a street in Jerusalem during Shabbat. (Corinna Kern/Flash 90)

When it comes to weekends, Jerusalem isn’t the liveliest city for those who don’t observe the Sabbath. Most restaurants are closed, as are cafés, stores, nearly all movie theaters, clubs and malls.

“It’s kind of absurd,” said Matan Hayat, 27, a Jerusalemite who is a student and teaches at Revivim, a Jewish studies teacher training program at Hebrew University. “There’s a total halt of all culture in Jerusalem on Shabbat.”

In response, Hayat and a group of fellow, young secular and religious Jerusalemites created “Open for Shabbat,” a program to open cafés on Saturdays as a place to meet and spend time together, but not for ordering food or doing anything that would violate the observance of the Sabbath, which starts at sundown Friday to Saturday night.

“It’s a fact that cafés are a meeting place for people, and on the one day when people have free time, they’re not open,” said Hayat. “Our idea is to open those places and use them as a meeting place that is Sabbath observant, with no commercial usage. We’re just using the space.”

In Israel, people often stop to drink their morning cappuccino and eat a croissant at the local café instead of taking it out, or use the café as a makeshift office, for getting work done or holding meetings.

“The café is like an extension of our homes,” said Hayat.

But in Jerusalem, where a majority of residents are Sabbath observers and where the Orthodox rabbinate controls nearly all aspects of Jewish observance, nearly everything is closed, except for several movie theaters, the zoo, some museums and a few non-kosher cafés and restaurants.

The logo of 'Open on Shabbat,' a new, pluralistic initiative in Jerusalem, starting November 25, 2016 (Courtesy 'Open on Shabbat')
The logo of ‘Open for Shabbat,’ a new, pluralistic initiative in Jerusalem, starting November 25, 2016 (Courtesy ‘Open on Shabbat’)


“Open for Shabbat” is offering a creative alternative, said Hayat. It will try out a pilot of the project on Friday, November 25, when Humus shel haTechina, a hummus joint in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Nachlaot next to Mahane Yehuda market, will remain open on Friday night.

There will be a lecture, too, said Hayat, given by Tomer Persico, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute who also teaches at the department of Comparative Religion at Tel Aviv University.

Each week participants — secular or observant — can meet at a coffee shop and bring their own food and content, be it boardgames, planned lectures and discussions, or newspapers to read and pass around, said Hayat.

Humus shel haTechina is a kosher-certified hummus restaurant, and the organizers have compiled a list of cafés whose owners are interested in participating in future Open on Shabbat programs. The grand plan is to have one meeting place in each neighborhood, appealing to the residents of each community.

“I think it’s a very sweet, communal gesture,” said Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz of the Yerushalmim Party and the founder of Private Supervision, the alternative kosher supervision organization that now has 28 restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and is a serious alternative to the government-run rabbinate.

“Many Shabbat-observant and non-Shabbat observant residents would appreciate a shared space, and coffee shops are a logical place for that,” he said. “I often say that coffee shops are like the synagogues of the non-observant community, where people gather together.”

Hanging out in cafes is an elemental part of Israeli and Jerusalem culture, and one that can't really happen on Shabbat (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
Illustrative photo of Israelis at a cafe (Miriam Alster/Flash90)


The effort, however, isn’t a revolution in the kosher certification map, said Leibowitz, given that Israeli hotels have always been open on Shabbat and kosher, and do not violate Sabbath observance.

“They’re taking an existing model, the ‘hotel standard,’ and using it for Jerusalem,” he said. “It’s not a new idea, but it’s a sweet expression of what can happen between secular and religious Jews in Jerusalem.”

A more significant shift for the delicate religious balance in the city would be to try and offer kosher certification to restaurants that would remain open on the Sabbath.

But that isn’t the goal of Open for Shabbat, said Hayat. In fact, the group, which is supported by the Hitorerut Party and its leader, deputy mayor Ofer Berkovich. The Open for Shabbat founders didn’t contact the rabbinate, as the event isn’t in opposition to Jewish law. It doesn’t violate the Sabbath at all.

“We’re not activists,” he added. “We’re community organizers. We’re not trying to go against anything, we’re trying to work within the existing framework.”

Open on Shabbat, Friday, November 25, 8:30 p.m. at Humus shel HaTechina, 23 Nissim Bachar Street, Nachlaot.

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