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Just One Shabbos

The idea seems so simple but it took a leading rabbinic innovator to promote it: Get every Jew in one country to celebrate just one Shabbos. The results exceeded Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein’s wildest expectations. Could this be the start of something huge?


man and his wife along with their five-year-old son walked three miles back and forth to shul inJohannesburg. Another mother made an even greater effort: She walked five miles to shul with her two daughters and then gave up the comforts of home to properly honor the Shabbos Queen. In tinyPort Elizabeth a full quarter of the Jewish population 131 souls joined in a festive Friday night feast and 15 made their beds where they ate.

Like Jews of Temple times walking to the Beis HaMikdash for a festival Jews from every corner of South Africa left their homes (and their car keys on the kitchen table) gathering in shuls and around Shabbos tables on Parshas Lech Lecha for an experiment that has no precedent in modern Jewish history. It was called “The Shabbos Project” and it was but the latest act of innovation for a community long noted for its traditionalism and kindness and lately for the creativity and energy of its chief rabbi.

The idea was simple: Encourage every Jew inSouth Africato celebrate one Shabbos. And not just a friendly Shabbos dinner where nonreligious participants would be welcomed even if they drove to their host’s doorstep. Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein 42 who has led the South African community since 2005 decided early on that the Shabbos must be observed in its entirety.

“Keeping Shabbos completely was crucial to the success of the Shabbos Project” explains Rabbi Goldstein. “The kedushah energy and emotional power of the experience depends on doing the mitzvah exactly as Hashem instructs. When Torah is diluted it loses its spiritual power. South Africans like a challenge and responded to my call to keep Shabbos in all its details accordingly.”

Chazal tell us that if all Jews would celebrate but two Shabbosim in succession properly Mashiach would come (Shabbos 118b). In organizing such a momentous event Rabbi Goldstein and his community are in the business of nothing less than preparing the final Redemption.

Last in Deed, First in Thought

The Shabbos preparations began on Wednesday, when some 2,500 women gathered in Johannesburg for a collective challah baking exercise. Young and old, religious and not, women from every stripe of South African Jewry stood side by side braiding challahs, an activity that Rebbetzin Gina Goldstein described as “a most unforgettable and powerful experience.” One girl, noticing that the non-Jewish friend she had brought to the event was profoundly moved by the experience, asked whether she wasn’t in fact Jewish. It turned out that she was by virtue of her maternal grandmother.

When Shabbos finally came, the large synagogues of Johannesburg — Great Park, Sydenham, Linksfield — were as packed as on Kol Nidrei night, except now the parking lots were empty and there were no traffic jams after services. After davening, 300 Jews walked a mile from Great Park Synagogue for an open-air dinner, attended by 600, held in the middle of a blocked-off street.

Gayle Landau, from the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, which counts a heavy concentration of Jewish residents but few observant ones, wrote afterwards to Rabbi Ze’ev Kraines of Ohr Somayach how “wonderful [it was] to shout out ‘Good Shabbos’ in the streets of Sandton, knowing we were part of something much bigger.”

A baalas teshuvah was shocked to receive a call from her mother, who had married a gentile after being widowed, telling her that she was searching for her Shabbos candles to light for the first time in decades and asking how to keep her tea warm for Shabbos morning.

According to the South African Jewish Report, 1,500 people packed the Yeshiva College shul to hear Lecha Dodi on Leil Shabbos and some 5,000 returned at the end of Shabbos for a Havdalah concert. (The Shabbos coincided with the celebration of 50 years since the rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Avraham Tanzer, arrived in Johannesburg from Telshe Yeshivah in Cleveland.)

The family of Steven Braudo, CEO of South Africa’s third-largest life insurance company, celebrated the bas mitzvah of his oldest daughter, Jenna, at Johannesburg’s Linksfield shul. Normally the Braudos would have invited friends from other neighborhoods to drive in for a Shabbos day meal, but not this Shabbos. Asked whether Jenna was disappointed, Steven said that, on the contrary, she was excited. “This is the first time this has been done in the whole world,” she told her father, “and it’s my bat mitzvah.”

Penetration of Shabbos went deep. The caddies at the posh Houghton Golf Club complained that none of their Jewish regulars were there. Attendance at Johannesburg’s tournament bridge clubs was down over 50 percent, and youth soccer leagues had to be canceled. One Jewish running club that normally trains together on Saturday ran on Friday instead to keep Shabbos. A gentile hairdresser sent e-mails to all her Jewish clients that they should book for Thursday or Friday because the Chief Rabbi said they have to keep Shabbos.

The Chief Rabbi’s team estimates conservatively that at least 20,000 of South Africa’s 75,000 Jews experienced a full Shabbos for the first time — turning off their cell phones, opening their siddurim, and joining in the collective experience of Parshas Lech Lecha. (Another 10,000 South African Jews are shomrei Shabbos.)

“I an optimist by nature, but I have been caught completely by surprise by the overwhelming response,” Chief Rabbi Goldstein said. “The sheer numbers and variety of people keeping Shabbos for the first time, and their excited reaction, has been breathtaking.”

 A Social Innovation Machine

The Shabbos Project is but the latest effort of Rabbi Goldstein to bring Torah to a large swath of South African Jewry. Under his leadership, South Africa has become a social laboratory for new ideas designed to expose large numbers of Jews to Torah. The Sinai Indaba, which he launched four years ago in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban, has become a mecca for all the top speakers in the Jewish world, and last year attracted over 6,000 Jews to a day packed with Torah lectures.

In all, 85 to 90 percent of South African Jewish children attend some form of Jewish schools, and the chief rabbi has introduced a twice weekly “beis hamedrash” track in the largest Jewish schools — King David in Johannesburg and Herzlia in Cape Town — in which few of the students come from shomer Shabbos homes. Generation Sinai, another high-profile initiative, brings secular parents and their kids together to learn Torah. Originally introduced as a once-a-year event, Chief Rabbi Goldstein has plans to make it much more frequent.

From the beginning, Rabbi Goldstein has been guided by the injunction of his beloved rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Azriel Chaim Goldfein, to “be a litvishe rav leading the community and solving the problems of the community.” He spearheaded the Community Active Protection initiative, which dramatically reduced crime in Jewish neighborhoods and ensured the continued viability of South Africa’s Jewish community. He has also emerged as South Africa’s most articulate pro-Israel advocate.

But above all, Rabbi Goldstein has been guided by his passion to spread Torah. There is no conversation in which he does not stress, in one form or another, the power of “the light of Torah to return Jews to the good.” The belief in the transformative power of Torah — Torah unadorned, undiluted, and without need of salesmen — is what he considers his greatest inheritance from his rebbi muvhak, Rabbi Goldfein.

When our ancestors answered Hashem’s offer of the Torah with “naaseh v’nishma — we will do and [then] we will understand,” the chief rabbi tells me, they revealed a great secret: the performance of mitzvos itself unleashes a great force, even prior to the understanding. That insight guided the Shabbos Project from beginning to end.

 From Concept to Reality

The initial impetus for the Shabbos Project came from an unlikely source: Israeli-American professor Dan Ariely. One of the best-known behavioral economists in the world and the author of two New York Times best-selling works, Ariely was in South Africa in early 2012 and sought out a meeting with the chief rabbi. In order to better understand how the Jewish People have been able to preserve and live in accord with such rigorous behavioral guidelines over the millennia, Ariely asked Chief Rabbi Goldstein what he considered to be the most important mitzvah.

At first reluctant to answer, the chief rabbi eventually responded that Shabbos observance has had the greatest impact on the preservation of the Jewish People. He noted that in the Leil Shabbos Kiddush, we bear witness to Hashem as both the Creator of the universe and the One Who took us out of Mitzrayim. The rhythms of Shabbos unite Jews around the world and across the ages. Finally, Shabbos offers the means to hold Jewish families together at a time when all the forces of modernity are pulling them apart.

Shabbos is the only mitzvah that Chazal specifically refer to as a “matanah — a great gift,” he told Ariely.

After listening to Rabbi Goldstein’s explanations, Ariely agreed that Shabbos had great appeal and contemporary relevance. Before ending the conversation, however, Rabbi Goldstein had a question for Ariely: What could he do as chief rabbi to encourage more Jews to experience Shabbos for themselves? Ariely advised him to launch a campaign for people to keep Shabbos just for a limited number of times, but that the experience must be a complete and authentic one. (He, too, observed Shabbos for the first time in his life Parshas Lech Lecha.)

The advice fully resonated with Rabbi Goldstein. His Shabbos Project Manifesto, plastered on billboards and signs across Jewish neighborhoods, stated explicitly: “We will endeavor to keep [Shabbos] in all of its detail and splendour, as set out in the Code of Jewish Law.”

Rebbetzin Gina Goldstein’s “Unofficial Guide to Keeping It Together,” available at the Shabbos Project Web site, covers everything entailed for Shabbos observance and preparation — from tissues in the bathroom to the preparation of tea essence to how to warm food on a hot plate to how to brush your teeth.

A laminated Toolkit to guide participants from the beginning of Shabbos to the end was distributed free of charge through the synagogues. Besides all the blessings and explanations, the Toolkit is replete with a great deal of material on the meaning of Shabbos.

The concept of the Shabbos Project was first announced at the conclusion of third Sinai Indaba in June 2013. But planning did not swing into high gear until a gathering of all South Africa’s Orthodox rabbis this past summer. My friend Rabbi Ze’ev Kraines of Ohr Somayach Sandton confessed that many present, himself included, felt that the chief rabbi was being too ambitious in asking for a commitment to full Shabbos observance. But the latter was insistent that anything less would be meaningless in the South African context, where even many Jews who describe themselves as secular have a regular Leil Shabbos meal and even attend services on Leil Shabbos.

One of keys to the success of the Shabbos Project was the support and enthusiasm of each shul rabbi. They “owned” the initiative, in the chief rabbi’s words, with each shul encouraged to develop its own special learning programs and meals for the Shabbos. Many of the post-Shabbos comments stressed how superb the rabbis and their programming had been.

In addition, the chief rabbi made the rounds of the Jewish schools and met with the student leaders to seek their assistance in making the project a success. Even though few of the student prefects are themselves shomer Shabbos, their enthusiasm for the Shabbos Project was nearly unanimous. Many parents were surprised by how much their children had studied in school in preparation for the Shabbos Project. Afterwards, teachers of the Sixth Form at Johannesburg’s King David School were astounded to learn that every student in the class had kept the Shabbos.

An indispensable component of the success of the entire endeavor was the extensive use of social media under the direction of Laurence Horwitz, a member of the Kollel Yad Shaul Minyan. Through the Shabbos Project Web page and various social media sites, and the commitments of celebrities — such as Nik Rabinowitz, one of South Africa’s best-known comedians — to participate in the observance of Shabbos, Horwitz and his team conveyed the sense of constantly building momentum leading up to Shabbos Parshas Lech Lecha. Over the Yamim Noraim, the chief rabbi spoke in Johannesburg’s largest synagogues, fanning the excitement with his infectious enthusiasm.

In the weeks leading up to Shabbos Lech Lecha, the sense that something unique and quite extraordinary was taking place continued to build. The powerful social networking reached all the way to Mark Raphaely, a South African expatriate on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, who wrote after the Shabbos, “It may have been the first Shabbos I kept, but it definitely will not be the last.”

 The Torah Community Responds

The excitement in anticipation of the Shabbos and on Shabbos itself engulfed the Torah community (about 20 percent of Johannesburg Jewry) as well. That shared excitement was, in part, a result of the lack of polarization between religious and nonreligious Jews in South Africa and shared sense of communal identity.

Except for the small German-Jewish community around Adass Yeshurun, which arrived in the late 1930s, most Torah Jews in South Africa today (including the chief rabbi himself) are products of the South African teshuvah revolution that began in the mid-1970s. As a consequence, almost every observant Jew has close nonobservant relatives and acquaintances. And religious and nonreligious Jews live in the same neighborhoods.

Nicky Mirkin, a member of the Adass community, described the “contagious excitement” in the streets as everyone was preparing for Shabbos, of her heart “soaring with joy and excitement [while greeting] every Jew as we walked each to our own shul, shiur, or meal.” She concluded her letter to the chief rabbi, “I didn’t want it to end. As the stories of those who, despite the odds, had decided to keep Shabbos rolled in, our faith in the final Geulah was strengthened.”

Religious Jews volunteered at the Shabbos Project Web site to serve as coaches for any Jew seeking help in preparing for Shabbos or interested in learning more about it, and to host nonobservant families for meals. A hotline was also open for all queries concerning the upcoming Shabbos.

Most of the discussion between observant and nonobservant Jews, however, was informal in nature. Colleagues at work, for instance, started talking about their preparations for the upcoming Shabbos. Ann Levitt, whose husband Jonathan heads the Union of Orthodox Synagogues, the largest Jewish organization in South Africa, received a call from a secular acquaintance inquiring about what makeup she could wear and how. Many in the religious community invited nonobservant relatives for Shabbos meals secure in the knowledge that they would not be causing them to drive on Shabbos.

For the first time, South African Torah Jews who were reticent or afraid to broach the subject of Torah with friends, family and colleagues, had a natural opening to do so.

The children in Johannesburg’s Shaarei Torah elementary school prepared cupcakes and jigsaw puzzles for kids their own age in the large secular Jewish school. And on Shabbos, many youngsters from the Torah community walked to the big synagogues to add to the ruach.

The sight of so many not usually shomer Shabbos Jews taking such pleasure in Shabbos affected their religious neighbors as well. Rabbi Yosef Salzer of Adass Yeshurun challenged his congregants to ask themselves whether they are sufficiently delighting in Shabbos.

 What’s Next?

Chief Rabbi Goldstein told me that he was so taken aback by the overwhelming response that he is only now beginning to consider how to follow up on what happened.

But this much is for sure: His insight that reaching out to fellow Jews cannot be based primarily on telling them what not to do, but rather requires showing them what Torah could mean for them and their families — in short, giving them a “present” — has been fully vindicated.

The Shabbos Project has made Shabbos observance for the first time a real possibility for tens of thousands of Jews. Some families who were moving closer to observance have been given a decisive push. And even a young woman who initially labeled the idea that she and her husband would go a day without social media “laughable,” ended up doing just that and enjoying it. One sixth-grade girl in King David School commented, “I was sure it would be the worst weekend of my life, and I loved it.”

For so many Jews to know experientially, not just theoretically, that Shabbos is not just a checklist of proscriptions and a burden, but the high point of the week, constitutes an unprecedented achievement. (In the United States, millions of dollars are spent annually to get a few thousand university students to experience a Shabbos with religious families.)

All over the country, Jews were talking about how powerful the Shabbos was, and asking one another how they can hold on to what they had experienced. “Now that I have done it once, the thought of doing it again is not as daunting, and I am also less intimidated to ask questions as I learn along the way,” Gayle Landau, a mother of two, told Rabbi Kraines.

Rabbi Asher Deren, a Chabad rabbi in Cape Town, wrote the chief rabbi, “ We have witnessed history plain and simple. [The Shabbos] constitutes a turning point in the trajectory of South African Jewry, a paradigm shift in the observance of Shabbos and by extension Torah and mitzvos of the entire country.... Listening to people last night bragging about how they kept Shabbos and what it meant was nothing short of miraculous: ‘At least once a month,’ they said; ‘Next Shabbos for sure,’ ‘I feel so special.’$$$SEPARATE QUOTES$$$”

Steven Braudo, who describes himself as a “secular” Jew, said that he looks forward to the Shabbos Project being an annual event on the South African Jewish calendar. And what about next Shabbos? I asked. “Next week, no TV,” he answered.

Tamsyn Gordon, a single woman in her late 20s, celebrated the Shabbos together with ten friends. She related that only 20 percent of her classmates from the Herzlia School in Cape Town are currently dating Jews. Yet after the Shabbos, she felt “100 percent sure” she could only marry another Jew — someone who could share Shabbos with her.

 Could it be Replicated

The South African community is, in many respects, unique. There is a remarkable degree of homogeneity. Almost the entire community is descended from Lithuanian immigrants who came at the end of the 19th or early 20th centuries, and the sense of being part of one community is very strong.

There is no South African analogue to the 22 percent of American Jews who say they have no religion. South African Jews are proud of their Judaism, almost all Jewish children attend nominally Orthodox schools, and the shuls of which they are members are almost all Orthodox. The statement, “I’m a traditional Orthodox Jew ... I have never kept Shabbos,” would not strike any South African Jew as a contradiction.

That latter fact played a major role in the success of the Shabbos Project. There were no heterodox rabbis to obstruct and oppose, and to warn their congregants against being ensnared by the Orthodox.

Rather than grumble that the chief rabbi was engaging in religious coercion, as would have happened in most other places in the world, they treated his invitation to them as a sign of the highest respect. As Mrs. Landau put it, “I thank the chief rabbi for his confidence in the more secular South African Jewish community that you don’t have to be frum-from-birth to share in the magic of Shabbos — you just have to put in a bit of effort and make it happen.”

All these factors suggest that it will be difficult to replicate the magnitude of the Shabbos Project elsewhere. But what the Shabbos Project demonstrated more than anything was the ongoing power of Shabbos to profoundly touch Jewish lives. And that makes it obligatory that Jewish communities around the globe make similar efforts to connect Jews with one another, with their children, with their deeper selves, — and with Hashem.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 481) 

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