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From a small South African seed a huge Shabbos Project has sprouted

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The Shabbos (Shabbat) Project was first introduced in South Africa in 2013 by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, when an estimated two-thirds of the country’s approximately 75 000 Jews kept Shabbat in full, many for the first time.
by SUZANNE BELLING | Nov 09, 2016

Through word of mouth and social media, the concept evolved into a worldwide movement; in 2014 about one million Jews in 465 cities and 65 countries took part and last year this expanded to 918 cities and 84 countries, with more than 5 000 partners worldwide driving the project.

This year there are over 6 000 partners in 976 participating cities. Among the new partners are Wilhelmshaven (Germany), Hoorn (Netherlands), St Louis (US), Guadeloupe (in a group of islands in the southern Caribbean Sea), Bethesda (US), Medellin (Colombia), Tallahassee (US), Lodz (Poland), Alphaville (Brazil), Hollywood (US), Mbale (Uganda), Boulder (US) Tuscany (Italy) and Sha’ar Efraim (Israel).

The Shabbos Project organisers told Jewish Report: “For the past two years we’ve been inundated with stories of people transforming their lives and the way they see others.

“And though this is by no means the objective or point of the initiative, there have been countless families and individuals connected with Shabbat, with the stillness, relaxation and sense of space and time it affords and that they have incorporated into their lives on a weekly basis.”

Rabbi Goldstein, who was recently named #21 on the Jerusalem Post’s list of 50 of the most influential Jews, and who has been dubbed “the Good Shabbos Rabbi”, says: “Big ideas can change the world and the Jewish world today needs them more than ever.

“The Shabbat Project is one such big idea - a call to Jews around the globe to think boldly about our future, to connect across the walls we put up. The Shabbat Project is the story of Jews returning to their roots, reconnecting with their heritage, returning their bonds of natural closeness and friendship, all through the Shabbat experience.”

Simon Apfel, spokesman for the Shabbos Project, explains why both the words Shabbat and Shabbos are being used this year.

“There is a perception (especially in the US) that Shabbos is what ‘frummies’ call Shabbat and obviously we did not want to alienate or push people away for such a silly reason. It also makes the project more accessible to Sephardim. Ashkenazim can certainly live with ‘Shabbat’, so it is basically the common denominator.”

Rabbi Goldstein added: “The home and heart of the Shabbos Project is right here in South Africa, where it all began in October 2013.  That Shabbos our magnificent Jewish community warmly embraced and participated in the project and brought it to life.

“Because of what we all did together during that very first Shabbos Project, it captured the imagination of the Jewish world.

“The excitement of the South African Jewish community for this year’s Shabbos Project is palpable and will continue to inspire other communities around the world.”

The Chief Rabbi’s office received some heart-warming stories from all over the world about the event in previous years.

From Alex Fleksher in Cleveland, Ohio, lead co-ordinator in that city: “I was awed at Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein’s vision, amazed at the power of social media and the numbers of people who kept Shabbat that weekend…

“There was something cosmic about it. My mother is South African and while she had been raised completely secular (so much so that she attended a Catholic convent), she still lit Friday night candles during her childhood.

“My grandmother moved towards Scientology, until one day, in her 80s and after her daily swim in the pool, she committed to keeping the following Shabbos.”

She proudly kept Shabbos and told all her neighbours about it. She died three days later.

“It is an opportunity to link myself to my roots in South Africa,” Fleksher said.

Capetonian Ella Blumenthal (94), a Holocaust survivor, was overheard saying at a Cape Town Havdalah concert: “During the Holocaust we had dreams things would be better one day. I never dreamed it could be this much better, that our future could be this bright.”

Tamryn Scheepers, an Afrikaans and sports teacher at King David Linksfield Primary School, was brought up as a Christian. Her maternal grandmother was born during the Second World War in northern France. Her mother’s family was Jewish - their surname was Isaac - but because of the German occupation of France, they hid their religion and their grandmother was brought up as a Catholic.

Scheepers, after experiencing a challah bake in Glenhazel, going to Sydenham Shul and keeping Shabbos, learned “that it forces you to rest and connect. The project has been so inspiring. I have a better knowledge of what family means, what religion means and what it means to love yourself.”

Rabbi Goldstein later spoke to Scheepers, who told him that she knows that in halachic terms she is Jewish.

“She and her mother are inspired and excited to continue the journey of rediscovering their Jewish heritage and they plan to visit Israel in the near future. Tamryn says she feels that G-d directed her to become a teacher at the King David School so that she can reconnect with her Jewish heritage,” Rabbi Goldstein said.

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