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Shabbat.com: An Interview With Rabbi Benzion Klatzko

By: Malkie Schulman

Anticipation is building for the worldwide Shabbos Project on October 24, 2014, Parshas Noach. This global event is the brainchild of Rabbi Warren Goldstein, chief rabbi of South Africa. Through extensive PR and advertising last year, he orchestrated a countrywide Shabbos celebration in South Africa. The goal was to encourage all Jews regardless of affiliation to keep one Shabbos in its entirety. The project was kicked off the Thursday night prior to the weekend with 2,000 women gathering for a challah baking session. It was an extraordinary achievement as 35,000 people, 70% of South African Jewry, many for the very first time, kept a complete Shabbos. The event garnered so much enthusiasm outside of the country that the Shabbos project has now gone global. Plans for an international Shabbos celebration this year are underway and will G-d willing take effect a few weeks from today.Schulman-101014-Aliza-wedding

“This is where Shabbat.com steps in,” says R’ Benzion Klatzko, founder of the website. “We have the mechanism the Shabbos Project needs to realize their goal. We are their natural partner. Our database contains names of thousands of hosts and potential guests. Even more important,” he adds, “is that we have the ability to do the follow up. People will come and they will have an amazing Shabbos. It will kick up a lot of dust but what will happen the next week? And the week after that? Will these unaffiliated Jews continue to observe Shabbos or will they return to the same old, same old?” Through Shabbat.com’s database, these inspired first-time Shabbos keepers retain the ability to find places to go for other Shabbosim, for hosts to reach out to them and for them to keep in touch with the observant Jewish world.

Shabbat.com was launched in 2010 and to date has facilitated 400,000 Shabbos invitations and has 50,000 people signed on as guests and/or hosts. The goal of the site is manifold. It is not just about Shabbos. Primarily, the objective is to be a vehicle of chesed for the global Jewish community.   Shabbos is the medium, connecting Jews to each other, to the resources they need, providing healing through Shabbos, whether they are unaffiliated Jews who have never experienced Shabbos, individuals visiting another country or town that need placement, widows, divorcees, or anything in between.

The power of Shabbos to heal and connect is inestimable, Rabbi Klatzko maintains. He shares a dramatic story. A host related to him that he had extended a Shabbos invitation on Shabbat.com to anybody within a 5-mile radius of his home. One of the responders was a young woman, who after Shabbos asked him how he had gotten her name. He told her that he did a proximity search on the website and hers was one of the names that had come up. The young woman did not believe him, she was sure somebody had told him about her and then she related her story.

Her father was in prison, her mother was mentally ill and one of her siblings was a hard-core drug addict. She was the one keeping the home together and just that week she had decided that it was too much for her and began to contemplate suicide. Then, out of the blue, she received this Shabbos invitation. When she realized somebody in the world cared about her, it gave her hope.   The host asked her, “How do you feel now after this Shabbos?” She answered, “If you invite me again, then I will hold on.” Today, Rabbi Klatzko says, this young woman is married with a child and doing well – all because of a “random” invite from Shabbat.com.

During 2012's Hurricane Sandy many people in the Far Rockaway area were displaced. Shabbat.com was able to place many families. “We had a family that stayed with us for a month due to hurricane damage,” R’ Klatzko shares. “They connected with us through our website.”

After army service, many Israeli soldiers tour the world. Prior to Shabbat.com, if there was no Chabad in the area, soldiers who would have gladly celebrated Shabbos might have ended up in a Tibetan ashram, but Shabbat.com has connections in 4,000 cities in 113 countries, so there is now a chance they can find a Jewish family near them willing to host guests. As a matter of fact, Rabbi Klatzko adds, the Israeli army was so happy with the services provided by the website that it made a video to say thank you.

Schulman-101014-Shabbos-ProjectAbout a year after it’s launch, the Shabbat.com team realized there were a lot of unmarried individuals coming to families for Shabbos. “Once we had all these singles, we thought, why not allow them to find each other?” R' Klatzko shares. “So we created a network for shidduchim as well.” This site is better than a traditional dating website in a number of ways, he asserts. First of all, the normal phobia of joining a dating site doesn’t exist. There is no stigma like that which is sometimes attached to a person using a dating site to find his or her bashert. Shabbat.com is about Shabbos. It is not a “matchmaking” website, although R’ Klatzko claims that nearly a shidduch a week is made on the site! It’s also better than a traditional dating site in that anyone can play matchmaker because everyone has access to all the profiles. It’s not just marital matches, either, he adds, since a person can refine his or her search by occupation, job networking can also be facilitated.

 

Recently, R' Klatzko shares, a film crew producing a documentary on Jewish matchmaking approached him with a request to film a real-time matchmaking scenario. R’ Klatzko put the word out to singles apprising them of this opportunity but informing them that the process would be filmed. A mother came with her daughter and, while on camera, R' Klatzko accessed all appropriate single profiles on Shabbat.com. They found someone suitable and “the story is not over yet,” R’ Klatzko relates, “The couple have been dating for a while now.”

Perhaps one of the most personally gratifying stories is how R' Klatzko found his own daughter-in-law, Gemma, on the site. Gemma lived in Scotland, had discovered Shabbat.com and signed up. She wrote that she had never kept Shabbos, kosher, or learned Torah. As a matter of fact, she had never met another Jewish person in her life. She said that her greatest wish was to experience Shabbos. Every new person who signs up is posted for all to see (and invite) on the site’s “activity wall” so after reading what she wrote, R' Klatzko offered to help. And she accepted. He sent her a ticket and made arrangements for her to study in a religious program in Israel.

Providentially, two days after Gemma arrived in Israel, she got sick and was hospitalized. After she left the hospital, having no family in the country, she decided to return to Scotland. El Al, however, refused to let her board because they feared she was contagious. A rav and rebbitzen in Har Nof took her in to their home and nursed her back to health. While she was there, she received a $2,000 hospital bill. Gemma was distraught, as she had no means to pay this huge amount. The rebbetzin said she would see what she could do and left the room. After a few minutes, she returned and said, “Don’t worry, everything is taken care of. I called a few people in the community and they agreed to foot the bill.” At that point, Gemma broke down and said, “I cannot believe the kindness of the Jewish people. All my life I have been waiting to meet people like this.” She decided not to return to Scotland. Instead she enrolled in Neve Yerushalayim, a seminary for young women interested in learning more about their heritage.

When Pesach rolled around, she planned her return to Scotland. But R’ Klatzko, concerned that she’d lose all she had gained if she returned to her secular environment, invited her to his Monsey home for the holiday. After an inspiring Yom Tov, Gemma returned to Neve. At that point, she had gained so much knowledge that R’ Klatzko offered her a madricha position on the yearly Akiva Israel summer tour he leads for unaffiliated Jews. “And shortlySchulman-101014-Rabbi-Klatzko

R' Klatzko believes that his website is the future of outreach. “With all the outreach organizations out there, we were reaching about 35,000 non-religious Jews worldwide,” he explains, “The problem is there are 12 million Jews that need to be reached so what could we do to increase the numbers?” The answer: kosher social networking. “With social networking, I have a connection to all my friend’s friends, which means that instead of 50 friends I have 500 or even 5,000 friends. My sphere of influence grows, more people hear about us and spread the word.” To prove his point, R' Klatzko mentions a recent Google alert informing him that the Peace Corps had written an article about the site. In the last year, he continues, NBC News and The Wall Street Journal also wrote articles about Shabbat.com. “What really blows their minds,” R’ Klatzko maintains, “is how inviting the Jewish community is. They have a hard time wrapping their heads around that.”

R’ Klatzko shares a final story. A New York Times writer was raised as a Baptist and recently discovered he was Jewish. Googling, he found Shabbat.com, and invited himself to a family for a Shabbos. After a wonderful weekend he moved on to the Klatzkos for the second Shabbos of his life. “After filling us in on his background, we realized he had no Hebrew name and had never been ‘bar mitzvahed.’”   In shul Shabbos morning, the ex-Baptist was called up to the Torah and given the name Moshe. The congregants threw candy at him as is traditional for a bar mitzvah boy, raised him on a chair and danced around him. It was a Shabbos “Moshe” will never forget.

Sometimes potential hosts are wary of signing up because they worry who the strangers coming to their home might be. R’ Klatzko emphasizes that they have a team that googles and checks backgrounds. Additionally, all those who sign up provide references and can be checked out that way as well.

There is also a parsha link on the site. Just another way of spreading Torah, R' Klatzko says. Shabbat.com also works with Sister to Sister, an organization for divorcees and widows. They can go on the site and locate their favorite host. “This chesed is what Shabbat.com is all about,” R’ Klatzko asserts, “helping G-d’s children in whatever way they need.” A widow’s house burnt down. R’ Klatzko did a proximity search for all those who live within 2 miles and posted a request for help. Shabbat.com is also there for baalei teshuva returning from Israel who often don't have religious support at home and are in danger of sliding back. With Shabbat.com, they can immediately hook up with a caring host.

These are some of the special services Shabbat.com provides. Running this extensive social network, however, is expensive. The cost is $16,000 a month and there are no membership fees or charges. R' Klatzko invites anyone interested in dedicating a week or a month in memory of a loved one, or for a refuah sheleima, to contact him. The dedication will appear in the homepage for the world to appreciate. “It’s like dedicating Shabbos to the entire globe.”

Shabbat.com is constantly updating and the latest innovation is its link to the Shabbos Project. One of the key obstacles to insuring the success of this incredible venture, however, R' Klatzko explains, is connecting guests and hosts. “What will you do,” he asks, “have 1,000 people manning telephones?” Clearly, that won’t work and that is why Shabbat.com is so crucial.

He explains how the partnership of the Shabbos Project and Shabbat.com works. All those committed to promoting Shabbos all over the world can go online to www.shabbat.com/theShabbosProject and sign up as a guest or a host. The site will create a specific profile solely for the purpose of connecting guests and hosts for the weekend of the Shabbos Project and (unless they choose to delete their file) provide access for future invites. If they are already Shabbat.com members and want to be connected to the Shabbos Project, they must log on to the site and in their profile, next to the entry for organizational affiliation simply choose The Shabbos Project.

R’ Klatzko says, “The Shabbos Project is not the end, but a beginning. A beginning that has the ability to bring Moshiach. Now that’s exciting.”

For dedication opportunities, Rabbi Klatzko can be reached at 212-Shabbat (212-742-2228).

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