Baltimore was among the most active Shabbat Project cities in the US. An estimated 30,000 people were involved in the initiative, which was co-ordinated by a team of 1 000 volunteers who worked tirelessly for nine months.

Festivities kicked off on the Wednesday before the Shabbat, with a “Magic of Shabbat” event that included a Shabbat-themed performance by worldrenowned New York magician, Arnie Kolodner; Shabbat-themed arts and crafts – including making a hand-crafted Havdallah set; and various games and activities.

The following evening, Baltimore’s Maryland State Fairgrounds witnessed 4 000 women pounding 6 750 pounds of flour, 1 575 pounds of sugar, 730 pounds of vegetable oil, 750 dozen eggs, 11 pounds of salt, 4 500 packs of yeast and 450 gallons of water into challah dough.

Organisers had allocated tables for the deaf (with a sign language interpreter), a Russianspeaking table, a Hebrew-speaking table, veganfree and gluten-free tables, and tables for the wheelchair-bound. Many of the participants were first-time challah makers who had heard about the event through word of mouth.

Margie Pensak, a writer for Baltimore Jewish Life, was mesmerised. “I looked around – women of all ages, stages, persuasions, and walks of life. And as these thousands of diverse women kneaded their dough to the rhythm of everything from Am Yisrael Chai to the latest Israeli tunes, I saw strangers becoming friends.”

Dr Dee-Dee Shiller from Pikesville shared these impressions. “I went last year and it was amazing, but this year is on a much grander scale. I love the fact that it is multi-denominational and multigenerational. It’s inspirational.”

Eleven-year-old Lauren Cohen, who was there with her mother and grandmother, described it as “a great opportunity for all female members of the family to come together and have a good time”. Seven-year-old Leah Warschawski, meanwhile, prepared challah at a table alongside her mother, grandmother, aunt and cousin. “It’s really fun! We had to reschedule my piano lesson so I wouldn’t be late to come here.”

Saralee Bernstein travelled all the way from New Freedom, Philadelphia with her daughter, Jessica, to join the Challah Bake. “I wanted to do something together that we have never done before,” she said. “We are starting a new tradition.”

Stopping to catch her breath from the dancing, Oshrit Solow – who moved to Baltimore three weeks before the event from Kiryat Gan (and was enjoying the evening with her new friend, Helen Altman, who had recently moved to town from Atlanta) – summed up the evening perfectly: 

“A lot of power. A lot of excitement. Jews together. Everyone dancing. It is a magical atmosphere. You can feel the ruach. There is something in the air.”

The spirit of the Challah Bake set the tone for Shabbat. At homes all over Baltimore, around 4 000 people not normally accustomed to observing Shabbat were either hosted, or were hosts, for Shabbat meals. There were also scores of over-subscribed communal dinners and luncheons, and 47 shuls and organisations across the city running various Shabbat Project activities.

Pensak described the scene at Baltimore’s Suburban Orthodox Synagogue, which held a joint Friday night service and Shabbat dinner along with the Reform community Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (representatives of around 10 other shuls also turned up):

“There was hardly an empty seat in Suburban Orthodox during the lively, inspirational Kabbalat Shabbat service. The congregants couldn’t help but sing, sway, and clap while the chazzan inspired them with his heartfelt singing. Some even danced, briefly, around the bima, expressing their excitement over the arrival of Shabbat, and over this unprecedented demonstration of Jewish unity.”

Around 350 people attended the shul dinner after the service. Among them was Isaac Schleifer, a Democratic Central Committee member campaigning for a spot on Baltimore City’s Council. “It was a truly unique opportunity for these two seemingly divergent synagogues to bring together people whose paths may not cross that often, to experience Judaism and celebrate Shabbat in a meaningful way,” said Schleifer.

“Hopefully, it will be the start of a newfound spirit of collaboration among synagogues and Jewish organisations in this city, and of many new, blossoming friendships.”

Meanwhile, tents had been pitched all around Baltimore to accommodate some of the approximately 150 lay-led Shabbat dinners and luncheons. One such tent was pitched at the home of Dr Michael and Linda Elman, who hosted a Shabbat dinner for about 80 student leaders, and a further 80 board members of Baltimore’s Center for Jewish Education at lunch the following day.

Then there was the Hal Circle community tent, pitched in somebody’s backyard, which housed 100 people for a Shabbat lunch. Linda Hurwitz, a former national campaign chair of The Jewish Federations of North America and a prominent Baltimore community leader, was moved to share with those present: “Did you notice how instantly we’ve all felt a connection, almost a familial bond with each other? There is an innate love for our fellow Jew that is coded into our DNA, and it is our responsibility as a people and a community to provide opportunities for every Jew to experience and discover this trait.”

Hurwitz afterwards offered her reflections on The Shabbat Project. “Each Shabbat is a gift, but this one seemed somehow different. The Shabbat Project gave us a forum to live our unity, to celebrate our oneness and to partake in the joy of being Jewish. The success of the initiative demonstrates the desire within all Jews to embrace our Judaism, to celebrate what we have in common and to feel the joy and closeness of one Jew to another.” Also at the lunch were Saralee Jacobson and her husband Bobby, who had relocated to the Greengate district in order to be able to walk to their shul. “It was such a moving experience,” she said simply. “Celebrating Shabbat has changed our lives.”

An hour after the end of the biggest Shabbat in Baltimore history, 2 000 people gathered on the lawn of the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC for the “One People One Heart Concert”, featuring the Moshav Band. As Havdallah was chanted to “officially” close out Shabbat and get the concert under way, 600 Havdallah candles were held aloft and 1 200 spice-bags were passed through the crowd. Each one had been hand-decorated by Jewish preschoolers throughout Baltimore.

“The Baltimore Shabbat Project has happened; something so beautiful, almost surreal, has transpired,” said Shabbat Project Baltimore co-chair Rabbi Nitzan Bergman.

 “The multitude of people who participated led to this project taking on a life of its own. No individual stood out because it was simply too big. Yet at the same time, each individual meant everything.”

Steering Committee member, Aaron Polun, agreed. He described the Baltimore event – and The Shabbat Project in general – as  “the beginning of a dialogue: a realisation that we have more in common than we have apart, and Shabbat is something that can unify us all”.

Bergman’s co-chair, Liora Hill, echoed these sentiments: “We have different traditions. We have different ideas and perspectives. But we are all Jewish.”


This is an excerpt from The Shabbos Project 2015 International Report. To read more about the Shabbat activities of more than 50 other cities worldwide during last year’s Shabbos Project, click here

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