TORONTO — There’s an old saying in the Jewish world that goes something like this: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”
The meaning is open to interpretation – what could be more Jewish than that? – but an obvious one is that the Sabbath is a tradition that has helped maintain Jewish identity and unity over the centuries.
Last year, in an ambitious nation-wide project developed to promote Jewish unity by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein of South Africa, a large majority of the country’s Jews came together to observe one Shabbat in October.
Now, come October 24-25, 2014, the rest of the Jewish world is hoping to emulate that effort. Plans are afoot in 200 cities spanning 11 time zones to hold community-wide Shabbat observances that are being dubbed The Shabbos Project.
In Toronto, a grassroots initiative spearheaded by businesswoman Dena Bensalmon and systems analyst Ilana Chilewitz is gearing up for a Sabbath observance that they hope will attract tens of thousands of Jews who would not otherwise keep the Sabbath.
It’s got the tagline, “Keeping it Together,” and all denominations, groupings, ideologies and factions within the Jewish community are being invited to participate, Bensalmon said.
The prospect of a community-wide observance is attracting hundreds of volunteers, being organized into a variety of committees, including religious leaders who are intrigued by the prospect of widespread participation in one of the core Jewish practices.
Rabbi Jarrod Grover, for one, spiritual leader at the Conservative Beth Tikvah Congregation, is calling on his colleagues at Conservative and Reform synagogues to take part in the initiative.
A letter from Rabbi Grover to spiritual leaders asks for everyone to put aside their ideological differences “and demonstrate that our unity is stronger.
“All our communities, no matter our affiliations, rest on the foundation of Shabbat,” the letter states.
Rabbi Grover is a member of The Shabbos Project steering committee, along with his colleague Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, who is reaching out to members of the Orthodox community.
“Every synagogue in the city cares about Shabbat,” said Rabbi Grover. “We may have different ways of observing it…but we all care about Shabbat.”
Rabbi Grover acknowledged he encountered some skepticism among Conservative Jewish leaders regarding the difficulties in organizing such an event, but the leadership of Bensalmon and Chilewitz has got the ball rolling and his colleagues are “overjoyed” at the prospect of a local version of the Shabbos Project, he said.
Whether people who don’t observe the Sabbath can be convinced to do so for the full 25 hours is unclear, but even a partial observance can be extremely helpful, Rabbi Grover said.
It will get people to think differently about their Jewish identity and how Shabbat plays a role in it, he added.
Bensalmon said the organizers – who are operating outside the purview of any of the city’s Jewish agencies – are putting together a program to make the Sabbath observance meaningful and interesting for all participants. A committee is arranging a massive challah bake event in which as many as 4,000 people will gather on the Thursday night prior to Shabbat to prepare handmade loaves. Bensalmon attended a recent challah bake that attracted 1,500 women and “this is going to be even more amazing,” she said.
Moti Bensalmon, Dena’s husband, said there are four ways people are being asked to observe the Sabbath.
• People can keep the holy day at their homes, with their families. A tool kit is being developed to help provide information about the day. A “Shabbos buddy” is going to be made available to help guide others in the traditional way to observe the day, said Dena.
• Friends can observe it together.
• People are being invited to attend synagogue programs.
• Host families are being recruited to share the Sabbath with other families unfamiliar with the holy day.
“I think it’s a great way to reach people we have trouble reaching,” said Moti.
In addition to the private and synagogue events, a large-scale community-wide havdalah concert is being planned. Havdalah is the ceremony that marks the end of Sabbath and the onset of a non-holy day.
“The actual Shabbos is going to be so beautiful that most people are going to come away from it with a spiritual high,” Dena said.
“Shabbos was given by God to every single Jew…We’re extending the invitation. Anybody who’d like to join, we’re happy to have them. There are so many divisions in our city. It’s time to break down those barriers.
“Stop, relax, enjoy,” said Dena. “It’s a beautiful time to be with your family, with your phones off.”
Shabbat may be the most ancient of Jewish practices, but, in keeping with the times, “it’s going to be trending on Facebook, Twitter and it’s international,” said Dena.
The project’s Toronto website (TheShabbosProjectToronto.com) is still under construction, but for a look at the inaugural South African program, visit TheShabbosProject.org.
Dena can be reached at email@example.com.