We are fortunate, when it comes to the Shabbat Project, that it evolved so recently and so rapidly that we can sit back and reflect on how it happened, and how we each became involved. For me, it started with two phone calls: in response to Moshe Kahn, I said a polite “no”. Simon de Winter, however, would not take “no” for an answer. That’s how I joined the nascent planning committee for Melbourne in June 2014. I was pleased to find out later that it really started with a ‘non-observant’ friend of mine, Ruffy (Geminder), who received a video about the Shabbat Project 2013 in South Africa. He sent it to Simon, who sent it to Moshe with an emphatic “let’s do this!” Simon himself kept Shabbat fully for the very first time in 2014.
It’s a tribute to the Jewish ‘network’ that one person knew another, who knew another, and we were quickly able to build an effective and representative organizing committee. From little things, big things surely do grow. Looking back, it’s hard to believe we pulled it off in just a few months!
As someone born and bred in Melbourne and who understands the dynamics between different shuls and organisations, I was amazed at the spirit of collaboration engendered by the project. If someone had told you that three Melbourne shuls: one South African, one Modern Orthodox and a Chabad House would join together and put on an outdoor Shabbat lunch for 800 people, you truly would have laughed in their face. But they did! People who regularly attended shuls just 10-15 minutes walk away probably sat down to eat together for the very first time. I was astonished at how our Challah Bake – a huge room with 2,300 women – inspired action. Like my non-observant friend who decided then and there that she would keep Shabbat, which meant walking over an hour to a barmitzvah. Like the woman who invited a total ‘stranger’ across the table to her home. We should probably banish the use of the word ‘stranger’. We are all Jews. We are all part of a wonderful community.
Melbourne is a very special Jewish community: relatively isolated from the rest of the Jewish world, it was a magnet for Holocaust survivors seeking a haven after the war. With a strong education ethic, they helped build one of the strongest Jewish day school systems in the world, with participation rates above 50%. Melbourne is well known as one of the most hospitable Jewish communities in the world (it’s the least we can do given how far visitors must travel to reach us). As the community grew and became more varied, we no longer recognize everyone we see walking in the street on Shabbat, but we are still friendly enough to greet each other. The Shabbat Project has been an outstanding catalyst for bringing a diverse community closer together. All we need to do is open our eyes and look around, and see that there is far more that brings us together than separates us.
This article was first published in the Australian Jewish News on 25 September, 2015