The Shabbat Project 2015 International Report

Last year’s inaugural international Shabbat Project saw Jewish communities in 465 cities and 65 countries taking part. Prior to this year’s event, the tally was at more than 550 cities (and at some point the counting stopped). A final audit now confirms that in 2015 the Shabbat Project reached 918 participating cities in 84 countries – in terms of the cities, a 100 percent increase in participation.

To co-ordinate the initiative on such a large scale, the head office in Johannesburg worked with around 5 000 partners worldwide – up from 1 800 partners in 2014.

The Shabbat Project, being a grassroots social movement, is expressed in a variety of ways – publicly of course, but also privately. And for all the Challah Bakes and Havdallah Concerts and street dinners and general spectacle, many of those who were involved drew the greatest inspiration from simply keeping Shabbat in their own homes, with friends and family, outside the public eye.

 Below are just a few of the thousands of the more public events that took place in more than 900 cities worldwide, involving upwards of a million people. They give an indication of the level and degree of involvement, but of course are not exhaustive. The process of collating information and putting together reports for as many of these cities as possible will continue over the coming months.


In the US, there were more than 400 participating cities.

Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles was closed off as more than 3,000 people sat down to a Friday night Shabbat dinner billed as one of the biggest in history. The “Shabbat of Unity” dinner, also known as “Shabbat Project 3000”, saw 300 tables stretching five city blocks (between South Beverly Drive and Doheny Drive) laid out with the finest Shabbat delicacies. Another 500 people arrived after dinner to continue the festivities. The event was overseen by 20 LAPD officers, 20 neighborhood watch representatives, several Hatzolah personnel and and 70 private security officers. The previous evening, thousands gathered at various Southern California venues to prepare challah, including more than 1 100 at the Ace Gallery on La Brea Boulevard, where Rose Kamin – who turned 100 years old on the night of the event – had the honour of saying a blessing over the challah dough.

Records were also broken in New York as a 20-foot loaf of challah baked in a Brooklyn bakery was unveiled to 2 000 women attending a Challah Bake at Grand Prospect Park Hall – one of 126 challah bake-offs taking place worldwide. The following day, the giant loaf was escorted by police in a parade through the streets of the city, before being shared among 60 guests at a Friday night dinner in a private home.


In Baltimore, initial estimates are that 30 000 people were involved in the initiative, which was co-ordinated by a team of 1 000 volunteers. 4 400 women attended a Challah Bake at the Maryland State Fairgrounds. Organisers estimate that around 4 000 people not normally accustomed to observing Shabbat, and of all denominations, were either hosted for, or themselves hosted, Shabbat meals. Meanwhile, tents were pitched all around Baltimore to accommodate more than 150 lay-led Shabbat dinners and luncheons, and there were also scores of over-subscribed synagogue dinners and luncheons. A total of 47 shuls and organisations across the city ran various Shabbat Project activities. An hour after the end of “the biggest Shabbat in Baltimore history”, 2 000 people gathered on the lawn of the Rosenbloom Owings Mills J.C.C. for the “One People One Heart Concert”, featuring the Moshav Band.

Preliminary reports suggest that close to 20 000 people participated in the Shabbat Project in San Diego, an event that – considering less than 17% of the city’s Jews are affiliated and only 3% are Orthodox – the San Diego Tribune called “miraculous”. A team of 300 volunteers signed up 130 Shabbat San Diego partners, among them 44 of the county’s 45 synagogues and 86 Jewish organisations and schools. Event organisers estimate that, overall, between 9 000 and 13 000 people participated in Shabbat meals across San Diego, a number of them observing Shabbat in full for the first time. The event was typified by the East County Unity Shabbat Dinner that saw four congregations – Chabad, Conservative, Reform and Humanist – join together for an outdoor picnic.

Elsewhere in the US: the Southern regions of the country were a hotbed of activity, from Dallas (Texas) and Atlanta (Georgia) to Phoenix/Scottsdale (Arizona) and Boca Raton (Florida); in the Midwest, Detroit (Michigan) and Cleveland (Ohio) ran a variety of well-attended citywide and communal events involving a broad cross-spectrum of the community, while in Columbus (Ohio), 30 central synagogues and Jewish organisations of all denominations joined together for an historic unity Shabbat themed, “614 Shabbat: one Shabbat for all Columbus”; and in Bergen County (New Jersey), a Challah Bake at the Rockleigh Country Club drew 1 000 women, with funds raised from the event used to build a shelter for abused women in Israel.

In the UK, where the initiative was endorsed by Prime Minister David Cameron, it is believed that 100,000 people took part in the Shabbat Project. Dubbed “ShabbatUK”, it was billed as “the largest mass participation event ever organised for the Jewish community”.

Around 900 events kicked off on Thursday night with Challah Bakes in 30 locations nationwide including in a giant marquee in Brent Cross, London – where 5 000 people set a Guinness World Record for the largest bread-making gathering (broken in Johannesburg an hour or so later). The following evening, Etz Chaim Primary School held a Kabbalat Shabbat service for 2 000 kids. And among hundreds of participating shuls, the Barnet Synagogue had 154 of its members who do not normally keep Shabbat, keep it in its entirety, and 250 people either hosting or being hosted for Friday night dinners (the spirit in the shul that Shabbat was further boosted by a baby naming, a brit milah, a barmitzvah, a batmitzvah and a second barmitzvah, all on the same day). Meanwhile a synagogue in Manchester, where Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis spent Shabbat, held a “unity lunch”, with non-observant members joining belzer chasidim at their houses.

Shabbat project celebrations in Russia kicked off with a celebrity cook-off organised by the Russian Jewish Congress. Two teams – one led by Andrey Makarevich (a famous Russian rock musician and the founder of Russia’s oldest still active rock band Mashina Vremeni or “Time Machine”), the other by Leonid Yakubovich (a famous actor and television host) – competed to cook the tastiest traditional Jewish dishes.

The next evening, over 500 women – many of them unaffiliated – gathered in two locations in Moscow to prepare challah, with many more in 26 other participating Russian cities. The president of the Russian Jewish Congress, present at one of the events, decided to get his fellow Jewish leaders to keep the Shabbat in full with him, and mobilised communities across Russia to join him in this effort. In Ukraine, mass Shabbat dinners were held in Odessa and Lvov, while those who were keeping Shabbat for the first time in Kiev were offered free accommodation at Podol Inn, a kosher hotel.

And in Pinsk, Belarus, 300 people – around half of whom barely identify as Jews – took part in a full programme including a Challah Bake, Shabbat dinner and Kumzitz post-Shabbat celebration). The Belarusian cities of Minsk, Vitebsk and Bobruisk also held their own Shabbat Project events.

In France, the Shabbat Project kicked off with a Challah Bake at the Palais D’Elysee in Paris under the supervision of the Chef Regis Ferey (Chief Pastry Chef to the three French presidents), with a further four bakes taking place outside the capital. Over the Shabbat itself, 30 communities organised communal dinners, including one in Strasbourg that seated 450. A gala Havdallah Concert for 2 000 people (double last year’s attendance) closed out the event.

Amsterdam coordinated a mass “homestay” campaign, with people from cities across Holland descending on the country’s capital where they were hosted by local families. Meanwhile a Shabbaton in Rotterdam saw a number of locals keep Shabbat for the first time. Some were hosted by families that live within walking distance of the local synagogue, some stayed at local bed and breakfast in the area, and some walked an hour each way on Friday night and again on Shabbat morning.

In Melbourne, Australia, around 15 000 people were known to be taking part in this year’s Shabbat Project. 1 500 kids showed up at a children’s challah bake at the Chadstone mall, and another 2 500 women prepared challah, and then sang and danced, at the Glick’s factory. Both events were led by Australia MasterChef, Alice in Frames. Over the Shabbat itself, virtually every Melbourne synagogue ran Shabbat Project events and activities. Highlights included a picnic lunch for 850 in a local park, scores of street dinners and street lunches, outdoor prayer services, and special events for youth groups and university students. A “human chain” initiative saw Melbournians joining together to walk to synagogues across the city, picking up people at hundreds of stops along the way. The Havdallah Concert, held in Caulfield Park, drew more than 5 000 people. Chazanim from all the shuls sang at the event, underscoring the spirit of unity.

Around 100 events took place in Sydney, where “6 000 Shabbat ‘showbags’ and 3500 challah bake aprons were distributed, and streets, parks, homes and communal institutions were filled to the brim”. Based on preliminary investigations, organisers believe the Shabbat Project reached more than 10,000 Sydney Jews.

An estimated 15 000 Mexico City Jews were involved in the Shabbat Project – more than a third of the capital’s Jewish community. Four mass Challah Bakes took place. Two at local Jewish day schools involving 480 children, and another two community bakes involving more than 2 300 women. Over Shabbat, there were 23 Shabbat Project events held across Mexico City. Most shuls hosted communal meals, while three sold-out Shabbatons were held at hotels in the city (involving more than 750 people) to make it easier for people to keep Shabbat. 260 members of Tnua – a non-religious youth movement – kept Shabbat together. Elsewhere, a family hosted over 60 young people (of all backgrounds) for Shabbat. And a 13-year-old girl invited 20 of her friends to her home. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities were all part of the Shabbat Project – a fact remarked on by the Maccabeats at a sold-out Havdallah Concert at a venue prepared for 1 800 people, but at which over 2 000 pitched up.

Communities in the cities of la Paz, Monterrey, Cancun and Guadalajara also reported successful Shabbat Project events.

In Rio de Janeiro, thousands of Jews in the central neighborhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema, Botafogo and Leblon participated in a range of Shabbat Project events. In the build-up, close to 1 000 women participated in a city-wide Challah Bake held a month before. During the week of the Shabbat Project itself, two Challah Bakes were held – one for university students and another for families – attracting a further 600 people.

Over the Shabbat, scores of families not accustomed to keeping Shabbat were hosted in the homes of more observant families. Many of the city’s synagogues ran special programmes. A number of communities set up less affiliated Jews with host families for seudah shlishit. After Shabbat, Havdallah Concerts were held at four different venues across Rio, involving more than a 1 000 people.

Meanwhile, the Buenos Aires Challah Bake drew more than 5 000 women, and a Havdalah Concert the following week (the event was postponed due to national elections), around 2 500. Almost all of the city’s shuls reported capacity turnouts.

Close to 50 synagogues in Toronto rolled out Shabbat Project programmes and events, drawing thousands of families, new and old to their campuses. Participating shuls represented a range of denominations and Jewish outlooks – from the ultra-Orthodox to the Conservative and Reform. Many reported “Kol Nidrei night turnouts”. A Challah Bake at the Scarborough Convention Centre drew 2 400 women (with another 800 on the waiting list). Over the Shabbat itself, nearly 1 000 families were hosted for their first ever Shabbat through Project Inspire.

In South Africa – where the Shabbat Project was born in 2013 – street dinners, some involving up to a thousand people, took place in virtually every neighborhood in Johannesburg. The night before, hundreds of high school kids from across the city gathered on the rooftop of the Norwood Mall for a post-Challah Bake musical jam. As mentioned, the Challah Bake itself drew a record 6 000 people. Once again, well over half of the city’s 40 000 Jews observed Shabbat in full. Scores of innovative initiatives took place over the Shabbat, including “pop-up” shuls” for those who lived too far from a shul to walk, and “house-hop meals” with people starting their Shabbat dinner or lunch at one house then moving to other houses in the neighborhood over the course of the meal.

In Cape Town, four hundred people from five Sea Point shuls gathered at the Sephardi Hebrew Congregation for a relaxing afternoon on the lawns, followed by a “Unity Mincha” and Havdallah Concert. The event was preceded by a mega Challah Bake at Oranjezicht Farm that drew 1 800 women, the majority of them non-observant.

Pre-recording screenings of the rugby world cup semi-final between South Africa and New Zealand (which took place over Shabbat) were held at both the Cape Town and Johannesburg Havdallah Concerts.

Of the many “remote” places where the Shabbat Project was celebrated: 50 students and young couples attended a Shabbat dinner in Izmir, Turkey; Swaziland’s entire Jewish community, comprising 18 families, gathered for a communal Shabbat meal at someone’s home, endeavouring to keep Shabbat in full; the Griqualand West Hebrew Congregation in South Africa’s Karoo desert held a Shabbat morning service for the first time in years; an entire community of Jewish converts in Karachi, Pakistan brought in Shabbat together; and 33 strangers – none of them affiliated – attended an open-invitation Shabbat dinner at the home of Keli Rae in Fernley, Nevada. It could well have been the majority of the city’s entire Jewish population.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.