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Shabbos Project 2016: Best one yet?

  • Challahbake2
Now in its fourth year in South Africa, and third year internationally, The Shabbos Project shows no signs of slowing down. This year, communities across South Africa interpreted the Chief Rabbi’s call to keep one complete Shabbat together in increasingly unique and unexpected ways.
by PAULA LEVIN | Nov 16, 2016

“You might think that the novelty would have worn off by now, but each year it gets more powerful,” said Rebbetzen Natalie Altman of Phyllis Jowell School, Cape Town. “It’s starting to feel like a Yomtov,” said Rebbetzen Michele Zail of Ohr Somayach, Glenhazel.

It truly is a grassroots movement that has captured the country’s imagination, not to mention its worldwide impact on an estimated million people in 1 150 cities. It kicked off with a challah bake in Johannesburg. A record 6 000 women braved a fierce Johannesburg downpour, hot on the heels of the city’s worst storm in 100 years, to celebrate, pray and make challah together.

Emmarentia and Victory Park Shuls as well as other communities co-ordinated simultaneous challah bakes for those too frail to take part in the main event.

Said Emmarentia Shul’s Wendy Richard: “We also had people staying over at the shul and at friends in the area and my daughter ‘adopted’ three little girls who were keeping Shabbat and were at shul the whole day. It was so inspiring seeing people take it to heart.”

Ohr Somayach, Glenhazel held a musical-themed Shabbat with the various groups who share the campus, joining together. Rebbetzen Zail explained: “The men had a musical kumzits before Shabbos and the singing continued throughout Shabbos.

“We had an amazing number of new faces. We felt like we were a part of something bigger than ourselves and every person got involved, from marketing to catering to organisation. The kids especially were so inspired because the Chief Rabbi had visited the school.

“Just knowing they were connected to Jewish children in over 1 000 cities, made such an impact.” (Rabbi Goldstein had in fact visited every Jewish school in the country leading up the the Shabbos Project.)

Shaarei Torah channelled their inspiration into “The Cholent Project”, singing, dancing and handing out cholent to KosherWorld shoppers as people stood in lines for Shabbos Project helium balloons to decorate their homes.

In Cape Town, Robyn Smookler led a challah bake at the V&A Waterfront, urging the crowd of 1 800 women to turn their plastic challah bowls into makeshift drums, as a deafening, almost primal clatter wafted over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. “This was the best one yet,” said Altman.

The sentiment was echoed by Umhlanga Jewish Community Centre’s marketing director, Angie Sacks. “We had over 250 women at the challah bake, organised by the Union of Jewish Women, and we’ve never had so many people book for a communal meal.”

An afternoon thundershower ensured that those who attended a lunch at the centre stayed for the afternoon and enjoyed Seuda Shlishit, Shabbat’s third meal, together. “I’ve never felt so connected,” said community member Sandy Furman.

Back in Johannesburg, the weather seemed to conspire to disrupt The Shabbos Project celebrations - unsuccessfully as it turned out. At first, “it was as if G-d was smiling down on us,” said Taryn Marcus who hosted an open Friday night at her home in Atholl, Johannesburg.

“There wasn’t a drop of rain until all 100 guests were in the marquee, then the heavens opened up and it poured outside all night. But we were bullet- and lightning-proof. The connection between neighbours and friends kept us warm all night and by the end it had cleared up so people could walk home.

“My father said: ‘Where in the world would you have 100 strangers rushing to book a Friday night dinner at a random person’s house?’ It’s because we are not strangers. We share the common tradition of Shabbat.”

Despite ominous clouds on Shabbat afternoon, families in the Sandringham area made their way to Jabula Park where Rabbi Zevi Wineberg ran a children’s afternoon programme with stories, snacks and Torah verses.

Said Devorah Leah Wineberg: “It was such a beautiful gathering turning an ordinary stroll to the park into something so meaningful.”

Huge storms earlier in the week, however, had almost put a damper on plans to host a street party at the bottom of Orchards Road, when a tree fell down in last week Wednesday's storm.

“Even a marquee wouldn't have worked,” said Pine Street Shul’s Rabbi Anthony Gerson. “As we were not using our hall that night, we offered our neighbours the use of our venue. People quipped that Orchards Road had been washed into Pine Street Shul.”

The next day, the shul hosted a cholent lunch for 300 people, an all-day kids programme and a musical havdalah.

Cholent was not on the menu for Sandton Shul, though, who hosted an “African Shabbos under the Stars” with dinner for 350 and lunch for 700. “We served biltong and boerewors for starters, and a potjiekos and bobotie mains, followed by koeksisters and malva pudding for dessert,” said organiser Kirsty Ross.

“We had African dancers, African decor and dancers and the shul foyer became a shebeen. Women got beaded bracelets and the men had beautiful yarmies. The whole theme served to upskill some previously disadvantaged service providers. We really got to appreciate how Shabbat offers an opportunity for mindfulness, for being present.”

Meanwhile, the Shul in Sandton Central held a Shabbos Project retreat at the Balailaka Hotel where staff were briefed on helping guests open their rooms so they didn't use electronic key cards on Shabbat.

Guests were given welcome packs including snacks and reading material. Shabbat began with a guided meditation and candle-lighting. The natural beauty of Cape Town formed the backdrop to several other Shabbos Project events. Phyllis Jowell School held an afternoon picnic in St John’s Park, Sea Point which saw about 100 people attend, including passersby walking their dogs.

“We sent out the message through social media and were thrilled with the response,” explained Altman. “People are asking to do this once a month!”

Sunset Beach was the scene of a pop-up shul Friday night service led by Chabad of the West Coast’s Rabbi Asher Deren. “I stayed there overnight without my family even though The Shabbos Project is all about being with family,” says Rabbi Deren.

“That’s because our community is family! The next day, Sunset Beach residents met at the Engen Garage to walk along the R27 to Blouberg Shul. It’s well over an hour’s walk, and I couldn't ask my community to do it if I didn't do it myself.

“We had two six-year-olds, who didn’t complain once and were so proud of themselves. One of them was keeping Shabbat with his family for the first time despite the fact that their walk took two hours!”

Victory Park in Johannesburg’s Rabbi Azriel Uzvolk also had a full day line-up, including a table tennis competition for teens and a cholent lunch.

“I had people calling to say that they would not be in shul on Shabbat because they didn’t want to drive on Shabbat, and asking what other laws they needed to know about,” he said.

At the Southern Hemisphere’s oldest synagogue, people were “glamping” in the field next door Cape Town’s Garden’s Shul. A company had been hired to set up luxury tents, with beds, linen and furniture so people could keep the full Shabbat in the centre of town.

Overall there was something for everyone - from quiet dinners at home, to huge communal affairs, picnics in the park and a 11-piece Argentinian fiesta band, Tiembla!, who rocked both Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Ultimately, while South Africa wowed with originality and effort, the real reason The Shabbos Project is still going strong in its fourth year, is the core experience at its heart. Shabbat. Shabbat can do that. 

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