It was September 20, 2016 and I was sitting in a lecture at Partners in Torah, in Detroit, alongside my cousin. As South African Chief Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, founding director of The Shabbat Project, got up on stage, I whispered to her: "This is the person who brought us together!"
Let me tell you how it happened…
I first heard about The Shabbat Project in 2014. In the build-up to the event, there were many people talking about the project in Detroit. I liked the sound of it, and informed my husband and my then 14-year-old daughter that I was going to keep that Shabbat with all of the other people around the world. I was hoping they’d be as excited as I was. This was my opportunity to finally break it to my family that I really wanted to experience a full Shabbat, and be more deeply connected to Judaism in general.
That Saturday, I took the day off work. The Thursday night before the big Shabbat, I attended the Challah Bake, sitting at a table alongside my daughter, my sister and my niece. It was so amazing to be there with hundreds of other Jewish women and girls.
As we were watching the braiding demonstrations, a young woman approached our table with a friendly smile, and asked if we'd like some help with braiding. She was wearing a nametag, and my sister recognized her surname. We soon found out that she was our cousin on our mother's side. The family hadn't seen or spoken to each other in many years.
The next day, I pored over the checklist in the Unofficial Guide to Keeping Shabbat booklet. I went on to keep Shabbat in full for the first time in my life.
About six weeks later – the Shabbat of Chanukah – I was invited to a bar mitzvah. It was a last-minute invitation. I was hoping to walk to shul, though I was a bit concerned about the weather. I needn’t have been. It turned out to be a warm, sunny day.
At the luncheon, in walks our cousin from the Challah Bake! "Mazel tov!” she exclaims. “I recently got engaged and I’ve been trying to find your address so I can invite you to the wedding!" I gave her my address (she had to memorize it because of Shabbat) and a week later, the invitation arrived in the mail. I cried when I opened it. I thought to myself: “I have family that keeps Shabbat, too.” I felt like it was a personal gift from G-d.
The wedding was in the middle of January. It was an indescribably beautiful occasion. We met so many new cousins. And we found out we all live within a few miles of each other! The uncle of the bride came to find us during dinner to join them for a family picture. It was incredibly moving. That same uncle said to us later in the evening: "My daughter just got engaged, and we would love for you to come to the engagement party at our house this Sunday." We went to the party that Sunday, and when we received the invitation in the mail for the wedding in New York that June, we all drove to New York and celebrated together.
Fast forward to The Great Challah Bake of 2015. My daughter, my sister, my niece and I are seated at a long table. The table is filled with cousins we now know, and all of us are preparing challah together. In the interim, I had recruited more friends to join us. I told them our amazing story. I told them how, during the 2014 Shabbat Project, I kept Shabbat for the first time, and that I've kept it ever since. And I hoped that they too would feel inspired to keep just one Shabbat.
My cousin and I talked that night about getting a table together for even more family for The Great Challah Bake in 2016. And that is exactly what we did.
The Shabbat Project 2018 in Michigan was my fifth consecutive year participating. It began on Thursday night making challah with close to 700 other women and girls at the Royal Oak Farmers Market. This Challah Bake was as profoundly moving for me as the others. From three or four of us at the first Challah Bake, we now had 30 people joining us, family and close friends, at four different tables. The cousin who initially connected us surprised me at the Challah Bake, so there was also a sense of coming full circle,
Making challah with these newfound family members for the past five years has affected my life in an indescribable way. Our extended family has been brought together in an extraordinary manner. And my own immediate family has been brought together no less dramatically – both my daughter and my husband have begun keeping Shabbat. I’ve tried to reach out to others, to share my experience with them, and give them a taste of the magic of Shabbat.
There is an urgency to erev Shabbat – especially Friday afternoon – which I’ve come to understand. I look forward to preparing each week – to the mania of rushing around making sure that everything that needs to be done is done – and especially to the calm that descends as soon as those candles are lit. We enjoy inviting people into our home to join us for the Shabbat experience. Together, we are learning things gradually.
While I was excited to celebrate Shabbat in its entirety for the first time in 2014, we are now together as a family, enjoying the peace and beauty of Shabbat. It is something that we look forward to all week.
Marilynn Yarbough is an office manager living in Huntington Woods, Michigan. She has been married for 22 years, and, along with her husband Kenny, recently took her first trip to Israel to visit their 18-year-old daughter, Molly, who is studying there for the year.