You don’t need to be religious to observe the Shabbat Project

This weekend, Jews in some 460 cities all over the world have signed up to turn off their phones and tune in to the Jewish day of rest

An ad in New York City's Times Square for the Shabbos Project. (courtesy)
An ad in New York City's Times Square for the Shabbos Project. (courtesy)

NEW YORK — If you’re young and single it is not hard to find Shabbat dinners in American metropolises with the not-so-hidden aim of ensuring the continuity of the Jewish people.

Less heavy-handed alternatives exist, such as the deeply hip Pop-Up Shabbat, a bi-monthly affair in Brooklyn that offers non-kosher dinners at $100 a plate.

However, if you simply want to reconnect with Shabbat in your own home, new programs are making it more accessible.

Last year, South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein charged South African Jewry with keeping Shabbat on a pre-chosen weekend, and according to his Shabbos Project team, the majority of South African Jewry participated.

To “made it doable” for those who did not know how to observe the sabbath halachically, Goldstein’s wife Gina wrote a guide to keeping Shabbat (from an Orthodox perspective). The shared South African Shabbat weekend began Thursday night with women making challah bread together at a “Challah Bake” and ended with mass outdoor Havdallah concert.

This year, the Shabbos Project is back — and booming.

After receiving inquiries from Jewish communities around the world, the project’s October 24, 2014 iteration has grown to 460 cities in 64 countries through over 1,700 partners.

It has its own hashtag, #KeepingItTogether, and has been endorsed by celebrities Mayim Bialik and Paula Abdul, both of whom have said they will be participating.

Pegged as a Jewish unity project, probably the biggest accomplishment of the Shabbos Project team has been to make this more than a self-congratulatory weekend by the already Shabbat-observant or a massive kiruv effort. Synagogues around the world from across the denominational spectrum are encouraging the participation of their congregations.

The Shabbos Project organizers hope participants keep all the strictures of Shabbat in full. Their lengthy how-to guide includes a level of detail that might give some more secular Jews pause — such as using tissues in lieu of toilet paper and using only Shabbat-friendly lamps.

People of the Start-Up Nation take on Shabbat

A more populist approach is being taken by the folks at Start Up Shabbat who are hoping to tap into the elusive demographic of sort-of affiliated Jews in their 20s-30s.

Start Up Shabbat, which is still in its “beta phase,” provides both financial and spiritual support to selected hosts who are charged with inviting 8-10 friends over for Shabbat dinner. It is similar to Birthright Next, the organization for alumni of Birthright trips to Israel, which also supports personal Shabbat dinners.

An alternative Shabbat meal. (Gefilteria/Shulie Seidler Feller)
An alternative Shabbat meal. (Gefilteria/Shulie Seidler Feller)

Funded by the Steinhardt Foundation and the Paul E. Singer Foundation, the hosts, who are called “Shabbat Makers,” are provided a tab with which they can pay for dinner and Judaica, and are offered the guidance of a rabbi. The dinners can be at a Shabbat Maker’s home or at a restaurant.

The introductory materials contain encouraging messages like, “You’re not doing this alone. We’re here to walk you through the whole process, from invites to décor to themes and even etiquette.”

According to executive director Aliza Kline, “the goal is to get people from ‘I didn’t think I could host a Shabbat dinner’ to ‘I can,'” and turn celebrating Shabbat into an ongoing practice.

Start Up Shabbat is trying to harness a generation of young adults who likely don’t observe Judaism the way their parents do and who do not already observe Shabbat regularly. The organization is not tied to the Orthodox model of Shabbat and would like to see diverse dinners occurring. It has already partnered with the Birthright alumni community and Hebro, an organization for Jewish gay men, for recruitment.

On the National Day of Unplugging, put your phone in a sleeping bag and spend a Shabbat technology-free. (courtesy)
On the National Day of Unplugging, put your phone in a sleeping bag and spend a Shabbat technology-free. (courtesy)

Unfortunately what this laissez faire approach may produce, however, is dinners lacking substance and any connection to Shabbat other than the fact that they take place on Friday evening.

The Times of Israel attended such a dinner in which no blessings were said, and there was no challah or wine. As far as the sabbath as a “day of rest,” the host was preparing pizza well past the start of Shabbat. (This however did not seem to bother a single guest, all of whom were pleased to have been invited to the dinner party.)

If the idea of Shabbat seems like too much commitment, Jews can try starting slowly by participating in Reboot’s annual National Day of Unplugging (no matter where you stand on the Shabbos App controversy).

Through its ten principles such as Connect with Loved Ones, Get Outside, Avoid Commerce, and Drink Wine, it’s an opportunity to pause, put your phone in a sleeping bag and spend a Shabbat technology-free.

This year the official day will take place March 6-7, 2015 — but you can unplug any Shabbat of the year, of course.

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