This week, over 1 million Jews around the world will take a break from their modern busy lives to light Shabbat candles, sing, and/or sit down for communal meals under the auspices of the Shabbat Project. The annual initiative is aimed at getting Jews to celebrate the biblical Day of Rest by unplugging for a day and avoiding certain activities proscribed by the Torah.
The project was launched by South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein in 2013 and quickly snowballed in popularity. This year, the Shabbat Project, which begins sundown on Friday, October 26 and lasts for 25 hours until the conclusion of the Jewish day of rest, has grown to include participants in over 1,400 cities across 98 countries worldwide.
Goldstein, who is Orthodox, said that unifying diverse groups of Jews was one of his major goals in founding the program – as can be seen by the project’s tagline: “Keeping it Together.”
“We have so many labels and things which divide us from each other. The Shabbat Project is all about Jewish unity. It’s a very powerful statement,” he said.
The events on offer by local communities are appropriately varied. As part of a “Radical Hospitality” initiative, Jews in San Diego have arranged more than 1,000 Shabbat meals at private homes across the county. Ten cities across the US will host “Pink Challah Bakes” to commemorate Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And a cigar lounge in Grenoble, southeastern France, is gearing up for an evening of Shabbat-themed improv theater.
According to Goldstein, the project is oriented towards Jews of all levels of observance.
“The Shabbat Project has two dimensions,” said Goldstein. “The events — challah bakes, havdallah concerts, Shabbat meals — all the different elements of celebration. That’s an important part of the project.”
But, he said, there’s also “the element of a family or an individual — whoever they may be — keeping the Shabbat, and doing it in a way that helps them reconnect with themselves.”
While Goldstein cites Jewish unity as one of the motivating factors for the Shabbat Project, there is potentially more at stake. According to the Midrash (Shemoth Rabbah, 25:12), “Rabbi Levi says, if all of Israel kept the Sabbath properly just once, it would bring the [Messiah] son of David, as it is equivalent to all the commandments.”
The Jewish singer Mordechai ben David has even dedicated a song to the Midrashic phenomenon, appropriately entitled, “Just One Shabbos (And We’ll All Be Free.)”
South Africa’s local Jewish dynamic no doubt shaped the project’s unified approach.
Jews across the spectrum are bound together by traditional as well as pro-Israel attitudes, Goldstein said, adding that the local Reform contingent was “relatively small” but maintained “good relationships” with the Orthodox.
“What’s amazing about the South African Jewish community is that people from different levels of Jewish observance connect with one another and are friends, and are members of the same families. There’s a tremendous sense of inclusivity and integration and non-judgmentalism,” said Goldstein.
“All the work I do in my engagement with the South African government and in South African society, I do on behalf of every Jew in South Africa, irrespective of who they are or where they come from,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein has his work cut out for him in representing the local Jewish community. South Africa is one of Israel’s harshest critics outside the Islamic world, and the country’s ruling African National Council (ANC) party resolved last year to call on the government to downgrade its Israel embassy.
The ANC has also expressed support in the past for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, including calling in 2014 for a partywide travel ban to the Jewish state.
Still, Goldstein said, the Jewish community is free to express its strong pro-Israel stance without fear of repercussion.
“It’s an open, free democracy – you can express whatever view you want. So the Jewish community is free to express its thoughts on Israel, which we do on many occasions,” Goldstein said.
“It’s public knowledge that the relationship between Israel and South Africa has been difficult, but it’s also important to bear in mind the views of the average South African and not just the ANC government.
“There are very large churches in South Africa that are openly supportive of Israel, representing millions and millions of South Africans,” he said, including the Zionist Christian Church – the largest church in South Africa – which sent a delegation to Israel earlier this year.
Goldstein said that much work is being done on the ground by the South African Jewish community and other supporters of Israel to fight the “insidious and untrue distortions” of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. One of the key strategic objectives of world Jewry today is to ensure that BDS is “promptly and soundly defeated.”
The chief rabbi cited an abundance of thriving Jewish student organizations, including the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS), which have done much to combat BDS on campus. He said that on-campus atmosphere towards Israel is comparable to anywhere else in the world, and not worse.
“South Africa has a very deep tradition of respect for human rights. The country’s motto is ‘Unity in Diversity,’ so there’s a big emphasis on respecting diverse opinions — and that’s why South Africa has some of the lowest rates of anti-Semitism in the world,” Goldstein said.
Asked about a widening religious and political gap perceived to be opening between Israel and the Diaspora along with growing concern that Diaspora Jews are identifying less with the Jewish state, Goldstein said that his constituency remained largely unaffected.
“The community here is very connected to Israel,” he said. “I don’t pick up any sense of estrangement or distance. Traditionally South African Jews have always been very Zionistic. They visit Israel in large numbers, and rates of aliyah are good, and growing.”
That sense of connection may be bolstered by the fact that religious ceremonies such as conversions, marriages, and divorces performed in South Africa are for the most part recognized by Israel without much difficulty.
Pressed for a reason why South African Jewry had a relatively smooth path compared with other Diaspora communities, Goldstein said that it was likely because such life cycle rites are often performed through the local beit din, which has “a very outstanding international reputation and high halachic standard.”
In fact, Goldstein was less focused on Israel-Diaspora relations than on the positive impact the Shabbat Project was having on the ground in Israel itself.
Pointing out that over 300 towns and cities in the Holy Land were participating in the Shabbat Project this week, Goldstein said that initiatives such as this counter the common idea of how deeply divided along sectarian lines Israeli society can be.
“The project unites all different parts of Israeli society, which yes, are sometimes divided,” Goldstein said. “But this shows that there’s so much room for connection and bridge building, so much goodwill to work with.”