The 2014 Shabbat Project was a momentous time for Jewish people, literally all over the world. In 465 towns and cities and 65 countries on five continents Jews of every age, background, level of observance and degree of affiliation, joined together to observe Shabbat.
It was an event of unprecedented scale that elicited a quite extraordinary outpouring of emotions. And in the days that followed – as Jews the world over slowly dismounted the crest of a wave – it was the job of the writing team at the Shabbat Project headquarters to capture those emotions while they still ran hot; to track down in real time and bottle the lightning as it flashed across the Jewish world.
Of course, the initiative was about more than just Shabbat. Indeed, it was the “Challah Bakes” – mostly held on the Thursday evening before the big Shabbat – that set the celebrations in motion. The next day – a Friday – the team set about chasing stories across timezones and datelines, gathering Challah Bake reports before the onset of Shabbat. It was manic stuff, but – working under extreme pressure, and spurred on by the glowing testimonials we were receiving – we had close to hundred locked away before Shabbat.
I’d actually sent out a bulk email to a number of Shabbat Project partners around the world the night before, telling them of the success of the Cape Town Challah Bake I’d attended. That email prompted a volley of unsolicited “reply all” responses, as one by one, these partners wrote back of similarly joyous scenes at their own respective Challah Bakes. When I woke up that Friday morning I had more than 50 such emails waiting in my inbox. Here are some of them:
“In Melbourne we had over 2500 women. Everyone was awestruck! I still can’t believe it myself.”
“Out buying some last minute supplies right now for our challah bake in Boca Raton, FL! Incredible what’s going on.”
“1000 sold out Challah Bake in the Five Towns. Starting in an hour!”
“In México City we had a challah bake this morning with 1500 women. Another 2000 have just arrived at our second one.”
“Two Challah Bakes in Manchester, both sold out! Incredible scenes.”
“This is absolutely unreal. Kol hakavod to all of you.”
“Rumor has it 3500 at the Miami Convention Center! And Buenos Aires 4000!” (Both ended up having close to 5000).
“Some pics from Montevideo... Just unbelievable.”
“This is magical.”
“Can you believe what's happening? No words…”
“It is surreal. The dancing wouldn't stop at our Challah Bake. This is changing people all across the globe!”
Then on the Shabbat itself, the airwaves went dead.
To be fair, they hadn’t been significantly more alive in the preceding weeks. Our partners had been effusive and excited about the positive response the Shabbat Project was eliciting within their respective cities and communities. But from our own perspective, there had in fact been something of a disconnect with our “audience”. We’d sent these messages and materials out into the ether. We’d seen our articles and press releases picked up by various media platforms and publications. We’d observed the comments below the articles and social media and drawn encouragement from the emails of support we got from time to time.
But all in all we hadn’t heard much from people. As I quietly observed Shabbat that week (well not all that quietly – we had 25 people round our Friday night table and almost as many bottles of wine), I wondered whether the Shabbat Project had been the smash hit we’d all imagined it was going to be. Were Jews with little or no prior experience or even Jewish affiliation observing a full halachic Shabbat? Of those that were, were they enjoying it? Were people actually doing this? If not connected, I felt intensely interested in what my fellow Jews in foreign countries were getting up to in a way I had never been before.
I needn’t have been overly concerned. As the stars came out on October 25, jubilant scenes erupted across the world. And people gave vent to their feelings in the most fitting way possible – through song and dance – flocking to Havdallah concerts. In some cities there were as many as 10,000 concert-goers.
The following morning, the stories began pouring in. And there were some crackers:
The lone Jew in an Arkansas town, who felt an overwhelming sense of camaraderie with Jews around the world “keeping it together” alongside him… Viviana Tarrab, who amidst a crowd of nearly 5,000 at the Buenos Aires Challah Bake, witnessed four generations of her family “kneading it together”… the group from Gateshead who defied a hundred years of division and antipathy, crossing the river Tyne to share a Shabbat meal with their counterparts in Newcastle… the Jewish girls from a private Episcopal school who attended the Miami Challah Bake – their first-ever Jewish experience… the Shabbat guest first-timer who, running late and hitting traffic, parked his car and walked eight miles to attend a Friday night meal… the Hoff family of Golders Green, London, who hosted 100 people for lunch in a big tent in their garden.. the Nissim family who hosted a full Shabbaton in their house for 150… a street dinner in Melbourne which sat 1000 people at a table stretching for almost half a kilometer… the Perth mother who had 25 of her son’s mainly non-observant classmates round the Shabbat table – alongside an eighth-generation Yerushalmi, some secular Tzahal soldiers, a recently converted Danish gentleman, and three Israeli travellers fresh from the Aussie outback.
In truth though, every person we heard from was overwhelmed with emotion, every story we heard was immensely special. I spoke with many of these people over the phone. Some were excited to the point of incoherence, others almost incredulous at how transformative a single Shabbat experience had been: for themselves for their families, for their communities. As James Kennard, the principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College in Melbourne, put it "Life would never be the same again..."
And the stories kept coming. And coming. Even now, almost six months later, they are still trickling in. Ordinarily, marketing can be a mechanical, even artificial endeavor. In the process of compiling reports on events, interviewees are prompted, messages are carefully crafted. This was different. All we did was let people speak. And their words and the sentiments behind them spoke for themselves. Sometimes it was broken English. Other times it wasn’t English at all and we had to go through interpreters. Every time, we were floored anew.
After weeks of hard work, we had a 97-page city-by-city report on our hands. It was a worthy effort. But in terms of what really went on, what people really felt, how people’s lives were touched – it barely scraped the surface.
Simon Apfel was born into obscurity, the son of a frozen peas importer and a washing machine. His love of writing has always outshone his ability by a humiliating margin. Nevertheless, he has gone on to achieve some measure of success as a copywriter, journalist and occasional comedy writer. He studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Cape Town, and has written for a variety of local and international publications. For the past five years, he has been chief writer to South Africa’s Chief Rabbi, and has worked extensively on the Shabbat Project, as well as a host of other projects initiated by Chief Rabbi Goldstein.