The Religious Services Ministry is promoting a project called “The Empowerment of the Sabbath in Israeli Society.” The project’s funding has grown in scope within two months, from an initial 4 million to 19.2 million shekels ($5.9 million).
In contrast to previous collaborations of the sort, the ministry is refusing to provide details about the new initiative. However, the funding is known to be split between the ministry and an NGO called “Shearim – Fulfilling Israeli Judaism,” which was chosen without a public bidding process.
In recent years, this organization has been waging a campaign called “Shabbat Unplugged,” calling on secular families to refrain from using screens or other technology on Shabbat. “Shabbat is a national asset,” says the organization’s director Ruth Kabbesa-Abramzon, about the new initiative. "We want to place it at the center of Israeli society, with the largest possible common denominator.”
Secular organizations claim that under cover of pursuing social targets and adopting a “traditional” approach, this is an attempt to promote religiosity among the public.
A recent announcement by the ministry says that this initiative is designed “to change the status of Shabbat in Israeli society,” and that it would be implemented in all segments of society, which is usually code for non-religious groups. The ministry added that this would be done in collaboration with local authorities and civil society organizations that deal with issues related to the Sabbath in Israel and overseas.
Such cooperation, with no bids for selecting the best partner, requires a government ministry to explain why it has chosen a specific private organization. So far, no pertinent details have been provided, even though the project’s specifications have already been finalized, according to Kabbesa-Abramzon. In the absence of information, no reservations or opposition to this program can be submitted. Last year, the Ministry of Education signed a 1-million-shekel deal with the same organization, for delivering four online Friday evening Sabbath services.
Kabbesa-Abramzon says Shabbat is “the heartbeat” of the Jewish people and should be better utilized. The new initiative will provide a platform through which various groups can connect and create their own brand of the Sabbath, she says. “We’ve worked with very diverse populations. The state doesn’t have to interfere with the content,” she says. In reply to a question, she said that the ministry may impose some restrictions, such as forbidding the switching on of electricity in activities carried out on Shabbat.
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“We can’t just fight about what should be closed or open, we need to unite around this day, but we’re not a lobby promoting a halakhic (religious law)-based Shabbat,” she says. The group quotes Zionist leaders such as Hayim Bialik and Berl Katznelson in their references to the Sabbath, she adds. “There are also cultural, social and economic aspects to this day that did not stem from a halakhic perspective.”
The initiative will propose ways in which Shabbat can serve as an opportunity for increasing social cohesion, contributing to the campaign against climate change (by advocating a “green” Shabbat). It will include the establishment of a “National Institute of Shabbat, Society and Economics,” in collaboration with government ministries and other public institutions.
Shearim was established in the last decade by the Avi Chai Foundation, which is its main donor. Its Shabbat Unplugged campaign included a controversial 2018 short film showing secular people looking detached, bent over their cellphones. It claimed that interpersonal relations can change when you put aside your phone and connect to other people. The Secular Forum NGO said the film contributes to divisiveness, employing dichotomies which present secular people as inferior. The issue was treated very superficially, said the forum. “If using phones during a meal is a problem, why is this so only on Shabbat?”
A senior official in another secular organization said the film encouraged religiosity. “They come and tell secular people what their day of rest should look like. There was more than a hint of arrogance there, with claims that secular people have an empty cultural-spiritual life, requiring a framework in which they could experience Shabbat as it should be experienced. Many secular people like watching movies, listening to music and corresponding with their families on Shabbat. A common denominator doesn’t have to be based on halakha.”
The Religious Services Ministry said in response that increasing the budget for this project from 4 million to 19.2 million shekels stemmed from a management decision to approve the collaboration for the first year, as well as for a 3-year extension period (published documents show otherwise), and that this amount includes the contribution of the private organization. Regarding the withholding of details about the initiative, the ministry says it acted according to accepted procedures, by which it only has to publish “the main points of the collaboration.”
Minister Matan Kahana’s bureau said he wishes to “promote a dialogue between religious and secular people, and the proposal by Shearim advances this goal;” Contrary to what Kabbesa-Abramzon said, ministry officials said “the exact details of the program have not been determined yet.”