The Shabbos Project: Global Jewish Outreach Gone Wrong

This initiative preaches to the converted by targeting Jews who are already open to observing a halakhic Shabbat, rather than engaging non-observant Jews on their level.

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This Saturday will be a Shabbat of historic proportions. Or so “The Shabbos Project” wants us to believe. After galvanizing Jews across South Africa to observe Shabbat on one particular weekend last year, the initiative has expanded this year to diverse communities from 212 cities in 33 countries. All of them, it claims, will unite by keeping one halakhic Shabbat together.

The project’s campaign includes video testimonials from Jews in South Africa, Israel, Canada, Argentina, Hong Kong and other places, and endorsements from celebrities like Alex Clare and Paula Abdul, as well as public figures like Natan Sharansky and Joe Lieberman. Shabbos is no longer “just for the frum yid,” one testimonial brags, but is being reclaimed in her historical glory by Jews of all cultures, ages and religious backgrounds. It totes itself as a remarkable endeavor to support the future of Jewish peoplehood by returning to what has sustained Judaism since Genesis Chapter One.

The project runs under the slogan “keeping it together.” A close look at the words “keeping” and “together” suggests the campaign has two key goals: promoting only the halakhic observation of Shabbat and using the Sabbath to achieve Jewish unity.

I am somewhat skeptical of these goals, for the project’s thesis seems circular: the more people reclaim Shabbat practice, the more the energy that Shabbat provides will be rejuvenated; and the more this energy is rejuvenated, the more Jews will reclaim the practice. This cycle makes sense for people who are already interested in keeping Shabbat, but for those who are not, it is hard to find an entry point.

The Shabbos Project aims to alleviate this challenge by providing us non-observant Jews with an easy way in – with local Shabbat mentors and step-by-step guidelines. It hopes that once we experience one halakhic Shabbat, we will continue to keep it.

I find this point sticky. I choose not to keep Shabbat in its full halakhic form, yet I understand the power of fully observing the day of rest every now and again. And if I wanted to find a community to keep Shabbat with every week, I wouldn’t have any trouble. But I don’t want to keep a full Shabbat every week. While The Shabbos Project seems like a fun way to connect with Jews worldwide, partake in a meaningful event and reconnect with Jewish traditions, it does not provide me with an opportunity to confront why I don’t keep Shabbat in the first place.

Perhaps The Shabbos Project would be more successful in reaching out to non-observant Jews if it were willing to help us incorporate Shabbat into our lives in creative, innovative and flexible ways. Take for example the new Shira Yoga Shabbat here in Boston. Or, the Tel Aviv Kabbalat Shabbat, performed under the angst and desperation of this summer’s war. Or even the Avi Schaefer Shabbat, an initiative at Hillel dedicated to communal meals and shared conversations across religious groups. These initiatives expanded Shabbat practices to beyond halakhic observance, and introduced international Jewry to a variety of ways of expressing and experiencing the holiness of Shabbat.

By failing to meet non-observant Jews where they are, The Shabbos Project’s outreach efforts will fall short of touching the lives of those who aren’t already open to observing the day of rest in its halakhic form. If its true endeavor is to unite world Jewry, I recommend The Shabbos Project consider endorsing alternative ways of experiencing the holiness of Shabbat.

Zoe Jick is a candidate for the Masters of Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School, where she focuses on Jewish Studies. Previously, Zoe was the Associate Director of the World Zionist Organization: Department for Diaspora Activities. Zoe is a Wexner Graduate Fellow for Jewish Education.