The Shabbat Project has an energy like no other. Sure, it’s novel and different, and as a project is relatively new. But it also has a profound and eternal message that speaks to us all.
It’s not just about Shabbat observance. I do my best to observe a halachic Shabbat every week. The other Friday night we had a quiet one – just us and the kids. When they were little, we used to eat together far more often. These days, even when we have dinner together during the week, it’s so … fragmented. Everyone has their schedules: work, school, and everything else in our busy lives, so just getting them all (myself included) to the table at one time is a challenge. We can switch the TV off, but the ubiquitous smartphones stay there, beckoning us to give them our attention. We’ve tried getting everyone to put them away, but there is always some excuse for someone to respond to a call or a TXT or a WhatsApp message.
As I sat there with the family seeing everyone sitting and actually engaging in conversation together, I felt like composing a new blessing: Blessed are You, God, King of the Universe, who commanded us to stop using our smartphones for one day a week.
We often think of Shabbat as highly restrictive: don’t do this, and don’t do that. So many activities that we might consider ‘rest’ or ‘leisure’ are restricted: no television, no driving, no phone, no Internet. The thing is: sometimes those activities end up consuming our lives instead of providing benefit to us, as they were meant to do.
This is where Shabbat comes in and saves us from ourselves. Abstaining from those things every now and then is actually very liberating. I have discovered that the world won’t end if I don’t answer the phone, or find out what is happening immediately right now this very instant. Shabbat recharges us and allows us to reset our priorities and our lives.
It’s not just about keeping Shabbat, it’s about ‘keeping it together’. We live in a diverse community: Judaism means different things to different people. Everyone chooses their own expression of their Jewishness, whether it’s Orthodox, Progressive, Cultural, Zionist, or something else. We have dozens of synagogues and communities within communities, each expressing a different ‘flavour’ of Judaism. I go to this shul, and would never dream of walking into that shul. The pages of The AJN are full of vigorous debate about everything Jewish. We can’t even agree if the gefilte fish should be peppery or sweet! We are all Jewish, yet at the same time so very diverse in our Jewishness.
The Shabbat Project community events bring us together in new and unprecedented ways. Tonight (Thursday), 2400 women from all walks of Melbourne Jewish life will gather together at the Glick’s factory and participate in a ritual that goes back thousands of years – baking challah for Shabbat. Together. Whether they baked last week, or will do it next week doesn’t matter. Whether they keep kosher or not doesn’t matter. Their beliefs, their politics, their affiliations, all don’t matter. It all fades away for a couple of hours as they all celebrate something that Jewish women have been doing for generations; something that Jewish women will keep doing for generations. The sense of unity in the room is palpable and inspirational. Last Sunday, some 700 children plus parents participated in the Challah Bake at Chadstone. That is just the ‘warm up’!
This week, the Shabbat Project will bring us together to observe a halachic Shabbat. This doesn’t negate what people do or don’t do on the other fifty-one weeks of the year. Rather, it is one week to celebrate Shabbat in a way that can include everyone. This Shabbat is a special one. There is an amazing power in Jews all doing something together.
One of the themes this year is “pull up a chair”. Around Melbourne and Sydney, hundreds of families will connect with their neighbours and friends, and together, have a group Shabbat meal. This is not an ‘outreach’ initiative for Shabbat observant people to invite their less-observant neighbours. The idea of people who happen to live near each other planning and enjoying a Shabbat meal together is about discarding our differences and focussing on what we have in common. It’s about being accommodating to others and doing things in a way that is inclusive.
To wrap things up, we will hold a Havdallah Concert at Caulfield Park on Saturday night from 8:30pm. Last year, some 8,000 people attended. With great weather forecast, I invite you to please join in for a memorable experience.
If participating in the Shabbat Project this week brings you closer to Judaism, closer to your family, or closer to your community, that’s superb. It’s an exercise in showing that while so many aspects of our Jewishness show our differences, there is one that can be used to show how much we have in common.
That is something we need as a constant reminder.
This article was first published in the Australian Jewish News on 23 October, 2015