South African ‘Shabbat Project’ Comes To U.S.


Riverdale resident Janie Lerner is looking for some Shabbos candles.

A special-education-teacher-turned-health-and-pets writer who was raised in a Conservative home but is now unaffiliated, she said she plans to start lighting Shabbos candles again next week.

Lerner will do that as a participant in the International Shabbat Project, an initiative on Oct. 24-25 that grew out of a successful outreach program that began a year ago in South Africa. The Shabbos Project (the spelling of the day of rest varies from Shabbos to Shabbat, depending its venue), designed by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, invited all of South African Jewry to keep one entire Shabbat “in full” — communal meals, Kiddush, no electricity or business conducted, etc.

According to Shabbos Project publicity, about 75 percent of the country’s 75,000 Jews, most of whom are members of Orthodox congregations but are not strictly Sabbath-observant, participated. Some, keeping a traditional Shabbat for the first time, took part in challah-baking sessions on Thursday night and community-wide Havdalah celebrations on Saturday night.

“Shabbos is the thread that binds Am Yisroel [the Jewish people] together in a quilt that has kept us close and warm for millennia,” Rabbi Goldstein said in an email interview. “It’s not only about celebrating and respecting Shabbos; it’s about experiencing the full, immersive aspects of Shabbos.”

The Shabbat Project (#keepingittogether) is essentially Shabbat Across America on steroids, a pumped-up version of the 18-year-old initiative of the New York-based National Jewish Outreach Program that features Friday night learner’s services and group meals.

NJOP, a pioneer in outreach efforts to the wider Jewish community, has largely limited its Shabbat programs to Friday night, and has not required participants to commit to an extensive observance of Jewish law.

Inspired by the Project’s success at home, Rabbi Goldstein took it on the road this year; some 1,500 “partners” (local organizers) in three dozen countries, including “hundreds” of congregations, Hillels and other Jewish organizations in the United States, have signed up. Many will take part in the Greater New York area, a spokeswoman for the Project said, but an exact number was not available.

The overwhelming majority of local participants appear to be affiliated with the Orthodox community. An exception is Temple Beth-El (Reform) and Temple Israel (Conservative), both in Great Neck, which have joined the village’s Orthodox synagogues in sponsoring the Project. While the Orthodox Union and its partner organization, the Rabbinical Council of America, have endorsed the Project, parallel organizations in the other branches of Judaism have expressed little interest.

The Orthodox emphasis in this country points to a cultural divide between American Jews and those from lands with a UK orientation, like South Africa; in the latter, Jews who are not halachically observant are more likely to consider themselves nominally members of the Orthodox community and accept Orthodox definitions of normative Jewish behavior.

Participation like Lerner’s may be more standard here.

Lerner, 47, said she will go to a Shabbat dinner or lunch. “What appeals to me is that I am able to surround myself with people from the community with whom I can discuss Judaism on a philosophical level. I am certain that there are other Jews who are detached from Judaism, from the rituals,” who may be attracted to taste Judaism to a limited degree this weekend.

“I want to start to light candles,” Lerner said. It’s something she once did, but stopped. “It’s something so simple. I own candlesticks.”

“When I first heard about the Shabbos Project, I had two reactions,” said Rabbi Eli Gewirtz, national director of Partners in Torah, which arranges one-on-one learning sessions, mostly on the phone, between advanced students of Jewish texts and beginners. Partners in Torah is coordinating “coaches” for the Project in the U.S., people who explain the details of Shabbat observance.

“The first thought was that it’s audaciously brilliant and counter-intuitive … urging Jews to keep an entire traditional Shabbos,” Rabbi Gewirtz said. “Then I had another thought … it will never work in America. South Africa is different. Jews there are more traditional, less jaded.”

“Then again,” he added, “perhaps it’ll work. Maybe not for everyone — but for the many people who perhaps see Shabbos observance as an unrealistic idea, keeping Shabbat once a year may be just what the doctor ordered.”

“We’re encouraging, we’re not requiring” participants to “keep a halachic Shabbos,” said Rabbi Benzion Klatzko, whose website is registering participants in this country.

Participants in the Shabbat Project ( are encouraged to sponsor introductory worship services, to host people for Shabbat meals and to sign up as guests — to bring a semblance of Jewish tradition to one Shabbat.

Janie Lerner, who formerly devoted her time to grooming and now writes about holistic health and technology articles for the Essentially Dogs website, said she heard about the Shabbat Project from Jewish friends in her Bronx neighborhood, said she may attend a nearby “learning service” on Oct. 24-25. And she’ll go to “someone’s house” for a Shabbat meal.

“I have a feeling that I will continue to be secular,” said Lerner, who calls herself “very spiritual” but rarely goes to synagogue. “It’s what I’m so accustomed to.”

First, she has to buy some Shabbos candles.