Progressive Aussie Jews Fear Global 'Shabbat Project' Misses the Point

Melbourne’s Progressive community declines to join this weekend’s global initiative, citing the activities’ Ultra-Orthodox bent.

Tanya Shaltiel

SYDNEY – The Shabbat Project, a unique initiative launched in South Africa last year that will go global this weekend, has captured the zeitgeist Down Under, with local organizers anticipating up to 30,000 Jews participating in events.

Supporters from around the world include celebrity singer Paula Abdul, basketballer Tamir Goodman and former United States senator Joe Lieberman, but not everyone here is swept away by the tidal wave of Jews planning to keep Shabbat in more than 212 cities across 33 countries.

The majority of Progressive (Liberal, Reform and Reconstructionist) congregations in Melbourne have declined to affiliate, many citing item two of the Shabbat Project’s manifesto: “We will keep it in its entirety, in all of its halakhic detail and splendor as it has been kept throughout the ages,” the manifesto states.

Rabbi Gersh Lazarow of Temple Beth Israel, Melbourne’s largest Progressive congregation, told Haaretz this week that he appreciated the invitation by organizers, but noted multiple flaws in the initiative.

“The prescriptive nature of the program didn’t work for us,” Lazarow said. “We see the religious laws of halakha as being guiding and not binding. Over millennia we haven’t always followed the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law. I worry that aspects of the Shabbat Project are too focused on the letter of the law, without spending enough time on the spirit of the law.

“Shabbat is meant to be for all of us, not just for those who observe it in a halakhic way.”

He also warned against one-off stunts. “We need to be really careful we don’t get caught up in things that are one-off or exciting. Shabbat doesn’t happen once a year, it happens 52 times a year.”

Philip Bliss, secretary of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, told Haaretz that the local organizers in Melbourne failed to convince him.

“It certainly had very much an Orthodox flavor to it. With a bit more thought it could have been a lot more appealing to the wider community generally.”

Bliss, a former president of the Melbourne Jewish community, added: “A lot of the PR that’s coming out is Orthodox-oriented. I don’t think they made much effort.”

But Simon De Winter, the chair of the Shabbat Project in Melbourne, said it was a “huge mistake” for Progressive congregations in Melbourne to decline.

“They’ve missed out on a huge opportunity,” he told Haaretz. “I don’t want to say they politicized it because they didn’t, they just said it wasn’t for them.”

De Winter, who said he has also been criticized by the ultra-Orthodox, acknowledged it may not make people more religious. “It’s struck a nerve,” he said. “It’s been a traumatic year worldwide with Israel and all the anti-Semitism in Europe. For a lot of people who don’t do a lot, it gives them an opportunity to express unity.”

Rabbi Moshe Kahn, the director of Chabad Youth in Melbourne, noted the manifesto was written in South Africa, not in Australia.

“If they [Progressives] feel offended, it’s their prerogative,” he said. “As an organization they are choosing not to be part of it – we offered it to all of them, we reached out to all of them, and none of them wanted to be in.

“It’s going to have real long-term benefit in terms of unity and breaking down barriers,” Kahn added.

But while the initiative seems to have ruffled feathers in Melbourne’s Progressive community, most of their counterparts in Sydney – who exist under the same umbrella organization – appear to have embraced the idea.

Emanuel School, originally founded as a Progressive school, has signed up for the project, as has the Emanuel Synagogue, which boasts Conservative, Progressive and Renewal services.

Steve Denenberg, executive director of the Union for Progressive Judaism in Australia, New Zealand and Asia, told Haaretz this week that Sydney’s Progressive congregations were embraced in part because it has the backing of the Jewish Communal Appeal, a communal purse that helps fund 20-plus organizations.

“Key members of the Emanuel Synagogue board are involved in the JCA,” Denenberg said. “Generally there is a more inclusive and pluralistic approach to the whole thing. There’s definitely no talk that what you have to do is become a halakhically Orthodox Jew.”

He noted that members of a Progressive congregation are walking to an Orthodox synagogue for Shabbat lunch followed by a sermon from the Progressive rabbi – a notion that would have once been unthinkable given the underlying tensions that existed here between Orthodox and Progressives.

Rabbi Benji Levy, the project leader in Sydney, told Haaretz he held a briefing in June attended by members of the entire religious spectrum. “They [Progressives] agreed to be part of that as a movement, but we are not going to police exactly what people do in their own homes or synagogues,” he said.

“There have been discussions around certain areas, but we never compromised on the core values.”

The two highlights of the weekend are the challah bake on Thursday night, which officials say is sold out in Sydney and Melbourne, and the communal havdalah event on Saturday night in both cities.

Daniel Lazar, the project manager in Melbourne, said they are expecting over 15,000 Jews to participate – almost a third of Melbourne’s estimated 50,000-strong community – in more than 70 planned events.

The first event in Australia took place last Sunday at a Westfield shopping mall in Melbourne with 200-plus kids attending, according to officials.

Smaller events are also being organized in Brisbane and Perth this weekend, where a combined population of just under 15,000 Jews live.

The brainchild of Rabbi Warren Goldstein, the Orthodox Chief Rabbi of South Africa, the Shabbat Project galvanized South African Jews last year, with thousands participating.

But Lazarow remains skeptical. Citing Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am’s oft-quoted line, he said: “More than the Jews kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”