After more subdued celebrations in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the international Shabbat Project roared back to life last weekend with record-setting participation in the initiative’s ninth year, holding 1,166 citywide “unity events” in addition to thousands of private events across 1,511 cities worldwide.
Participants returned in droves to mass Shabbat dinners and lunches, Shabbatons, challah bakes, havdalah concerts, and other in-person events.
“I am moved by the resilience and boldness of our thousands of partners and volunteers around the world whose efforts led to record participation amidst the headwinds of the aftermath of the pandemic. The joy of Shabbat and the power of Jewish unity triumphed thanks to their heroic work. It gives us all hope for the future,” said South African Chief Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, the founder and director of The Shabbat Project. “The visceral bond between Jews of all backgrounds and Shabbat was in full view in the weekend events across all barriers of language, culture, and levels of observance. Shabbat as our shared national treasure was there for the world to see.”
The Shabbat Project drew record-high participation despite many partners being unable to take part due to COVID-19 restrictions in their countries and cities.
Israel alone had over 200 events. In Eilat, open-invitation Shabbat dinners took place at four central locations, while in Tel Aviv, a citywide Shabbat dinner organized by White City Shabbat was held on the beachfront. The Ascent center in Safed hosted 25 events, among them a rooftop Kabbalat Shabbat and a Shabbat-themed transcendental meditation workshop. In Ashkelon, a three-day “Dancing on the Water” event for women featured pre- and post-Shabbat dance parties with DJ Dali. Residents of Raanana, Herzliya, and Kfar Saba provided homemade Shabbat meals to Magen David Adom’s first responders.
The U.S., too, was highly active. In Phoenix, an artisanal challah bake and chavruta (partner) learning program drew 300 women, while 40 local families signed up for a “12-week Shabbat challenge.” In Long Beach, California, a partner community which only heard about The Shabbat Project two weeks beforehand, organized seven city-wide events, among them, an initiative supporting “first-timers” to host their own Shabbat dinner for friends and neighbors. In Cherry Hill, New Jersey, residents of Weinberg Commons, a facility for adults with special needs, enjoyed a joyous Kabbalat Shabbat followed by a five-star dinner. A school in Lawrence, New York, rolled out a Shabbat Project-themed curriculum in the weeks leading up to the project, culminating in a challah bake on a football field for 300 school families and a Zoom family havdalah concert. San Diego held a full day of Jewish learning with hundreds of people of all levels of observance, and the Women’s Philanthropy arm of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) held an online challah bake for its 148 Federations and 300 network communities.
In Europe, Olami France coordinated a full Shabbat experience for French-speaking students on college campuses in Toulouse, Aix-en-Provence, Paris, Madrid, and Porto. After a havdalah concert in Vienna, commemorative balloons were released into the night sky. And in Birmingham, the UK, four organizations serving different constituencies – Aish UK, Chabad, Jsoc, and the University of Birmingham Chaplaincy – joined forces for a student challah Bake.
In Chile and Panama, 2,000 women took part in scores of challah bakes held in private homes and connected via Zoom. In Mexico City, a gift box containing grape juice, challah, and salads was given to those committing to keep Shabbat for the first time. Cali, Colombia, organized a week-long program including a flower workshop for women, a cocktail class for men, and a Thursday night pizza bake, followed by a community-wide Shabbaton. And in Guatemala, the country’s main synagogue reopened its doors for Shabbat services after a two-year hiatus.
In South Africa, where The Shabbat Project was founded in 2013, events centered on the “Big Shabbos Walk,” with communities pouring into the streets on Shabbat afternoon to enjoy the spring sunshine, and each community walk culminating at an outdoor location for picnics, Torah learning, and other activities.
As in previous years, The Shabbat Project was managed from headquarters in Tel Aviv, where a partner team liaised with more than 5,000 volunteer “city captains” across 10 different languages. The city captains marshaled their diverse volunteer teams on the ground.
“I’ve been particularly moved by the energy, enthusiasm, and dedication of our partners,” says Goldstein. “Through boundless creativity and passion, they’ve ensured The Shabbat Project has taken hold not just in the world’s Jewish capitals, but in countless cities not previously associated with a Jewish population.”
Among scores of new global initiatives was the “Shabbox” – a special Shabbat gift box with downloadable resources designed to help young Jewish families experience the joy of sharing Shabbat together. The “Pick a Mitzvah” campaign, initiated in Panama, spread to 25 countries this year and saw more than 17,000 people committing to keep one aspect of Shabbat. For the “Challah Challenge,” Israelis of all backgrounds posted creative challah recipes on Instagram and challenged friends to do the same, while a diverse group of Israeli influencers — foodies, journalists, lifestyle bloggers, some with more than 1 million followers — posted in support of the campaign.
Beit Issie Shapiro, a pioneering leader in services and advocacy for people with disabilities in Israel, launched an accessible Shabbat-themed digital platform to help children across the globe learn about Shabbat in an engaging and exciting way. And Zehud, which provides online Jewish education to children in isolated Jewish communities across Europe, hosted a Zoom challah bake for families from all 57 regions where it is active.
Finally, the #DisconnectConnect TikTok campaign, launched last week and now running throughout the year, is gaining traction as TikTokers express their own unique appreciation for Shabbos.
“Shabbat is about slowing down the pace of life – disconnecting from devices and distractions, so that we can breathe and feel and connect,” Goldstein explains. “This past Shabbat, participants switched off their phones, set aside their work, left the car in the garage – ultimately, it was this total immersion in the experience that allowed so many to access the joys that Shabbat has to offer.”
South Africa’s chief rabbi is particularly inspired by this year’s dramatic increase in Shabbat Project participation.
“There is a real thirst worldwide for true Jewish unity and a genuine connection to Judaism,” Goldstein added, “and I am confident this social movement will continue to expand as more and more people taste the magic of Shabbat and experience the beauty of Jews coming together in a spirit of unity.”