|After the Great Big Challah Bake in Paramus, the bakers stand together to sing. Courtesy Areyvut|
It really was a bit audacious. With the catchphrase “Keeping it Together,” the Shabbos Project – building on a Jewish unity initiative launched in South Africa last year by the country’s chief rabbi, Warren Goldstein – cast its net worldwide last weekend.
And if Bergen County didn’t reach its goal of bringing together 3,000 women to bake challah, well, there’s always next year, local organizers say.
Unrealistic? Hardly. Johannesburg brought together 5,000 women, as did Buenos Aires, and Miami gathered a group of 4,900.
In all, the project – which in our community included not only a challah-bake but programs at various synagogues as well as a concert in Teaneck after Havdalah – was expected to involve “at least one million Jews observing the Sabbath, together in full, from sunset [on Friday] until nightfall [on Saturday],” according to project initiators in South Africa.
Maybe, Daniel Rothner of Teaneck said, some of the success enjoyed by the project derived from the star power of participants such as Paula Abdul and Mayim Bialik. (Mr. Rothner is the founding director of Areyvut, a nonprofit organization that seeks to engage Jewish youth and teens in programs centered on core Jewish values.) But maybe, he continued, it is an idea whose time has come.
Mr. Rothner, whose organization served as the headquarters for project registrants, noted that some 2,000 people participated locally in various aspects of the program. “We live in a technological age, with Twitter, hashtags, Facebook, and the power to reach people,” he said. “It’s awesome. I’m thrilled we can be part of it.”
Mr. Rothner said he heard about the project in March and got in touch with the organizers to see how our area might participate. Areyvut organized the Thursday night challah-bake and was the sponsoring agency for the community-wide concert by music group Pey Dalid held Saturday night at the Jewish Center of Teaneck.
One of the goals of the project, he said, was to facilitate interactions for Shabbat meals between would-be hosts and prospective guests. The intention, he said, was to encourage people to invite relatives and friends to join them – not just this week but throughout the year.
“There were kinks in the system the first time out,” he said. “When people registered for the project, a lot of them thought that someone would send them a note saying, ‘The Friedman family is coming for lunch.'” But, he said, invitations should be issued naturally.
“If you have a friend or neighbor, invite them for a Shabbat meal or to join you for services. It’s a way of building on connections you already have.”
Mr. Rothner said Areyvut initially got involved “because of the Jewish unity piece. We often focus on things that divide us. But we have a lot more in common. It’s nice getting people together to celebrate and enjoy,” he said, noting that Areyvut worked with the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, the Jewish Youth Encounter Program, and the Jewish Learning Experience to pull together the various components of the project.
And, he said, for every one “official” event, there were many other “unofficial” ones. For example, some rabbis sent congregants emails encouraging them to invite guests to their home. While the committee helped to plan initiatives, “in terms of Shabbat, each shul basically did its own thing, whether a Carlebach minyan or a kiddush.”
The founder stressed the importance of follow-up. “If no one reaches out, it’s a lost opportunity,” he said. “There’s more we can do to engage people Jewishly, whether it’s through Israeli dance, a film festival, or a connection to Israel. The personal connection can’t be underestimated. It’s natural and organic. That relationship will be long-term.”
He estimated that of the 300 people who attended the challah-bake, most were Orthodox “but at least 50 people were not. It ran the gamut in dress. People are seeking a sense of community.
“There was no judgment and no one felt uncomfortable.”
Mr. Rothner said that while this year’s challah-bake drew 300 women, “next year it will be 3,000, maybe at the Meadowlands Exposition Center. Why not? If you build it, they will come. The more people, the more excitement.”
Fellow organizer Esther Friedman of Teaneck called the challah-baking event, held on October 23 at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, “unbelievable.” She noted that Butterflake Bake Shop provided 1,000 braids of dough for the project at a discounted price, and each participant was given three braids to bring home and bake.
The event was moderated by project committee member Dena Levie, and speaker Mandana Bolour of Englewood – whose presentation was projected onto a large screen – talked about the meaning behind each of the ingredients used to bake the challah.
“There was singing at the end, and everyone held hands,” Ms. Friedman said. “It was so special to meet new people. We have so much in common.”
She pointed out that the event was designed to bring different groups together, but she added that the project had not been publicized thoroughly enough.
“There was no official publicity,” she said, adding that participating organizations reached out to people whose names they already had.
While she was very excited about the project as a whole, she said the local community “got on board late.” Still, she said, “we joined with a global project where everyone can do what they want but do it together. We can make it happen. We can introduce [Shabbos] to people.”
Ms. Friedman said that after Mr. Rothner adopted the idea for Bergen County, a small committee was formed to create programming, with various committee members “in charge of a different aspect.”
Committee member Julie Farkas of Bergenfield got involved in the project through the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, a group that takes women to Israel each year. Begun in 2008, the U.S.-based program began with a contingent of 300 women.
“We now take 2,000 women a year,” Ms. Farkas said, adding that the Bergen County affiliate so far has reached 65 local women.
“It’s like a Birthright for mommies,” she said, explaining that the program targets women with limited Jewish educational backgrounds. The women must have children under 18 living at home. The goal, she said, is both to affect the next generation and to connect the women to each other and to Judaism.
Ms. Farkas, who was charged with organizing events at Beth Abraham, said there was “a lot of excitement” connected with the Shabbos Project. She pointed to the global spread of the project and the buzz on social media like Facebook. “We’re all coming together,” she said.
What will constitute success?
“If everyone connects with one new person,” that will be significant in itself, she said, pointing out that more than 200 people had registered for the lunch at her synagogue.
Clearly, the excitement generated by women’s participation in JWRP carries over long after their Israel trip.
Tracey Cohen of Fair Lawn, a member of a Conservative congregation who has remained closely associated with JWRP since traveling with it two years ago – she is going back to Israel with it this December as a madricha (leader) – said alumnae meet in Teaneck every Thursday to bake challah, and meet every Sunday morning at the Teaneck General Store for presentations and discussions.
Ms. Cohen, who participated in the Shabbos Project’s challah-bake, called this “an extension of what we do as part of our spiritual uplift.
“It changed my life,” she said. “We went to Israel and came back as a sisterhood. There’s a feeling of wanting to be more Judaically connected, to be more connected with our Jewish roots. Whatever you call yourself, you get more connected, it’s an invitation to learn more.”
She called the feeling of fellowship at Thursday night’s challah-bake “unbelievable, amazing.”
“Calling this a ‘positive’ experience doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface,” said Anita Dickman of Randolph, who will travel to Israel for the first time in December. “It was amazingly positive.”
Ms. Dickman, a member of a Reform synagogue, spent the entire Shabbat in Teaneck, hosted by the Farkas family. Her desire, she said, is to be “more observant and embrace a more Jewish way of life. This was an amazing start.”
Ms. Dickman attended Friday evening services at Beth Abraham and Saturday services at Keter Torah, where there were speakers throughout the day.
“I also had smaller conversations with the rabbi,” she said. “Everyone was so warm and inviting. Then we relaxed a bit and went somewhere for a nosh. We came back for Minchah/Maariv and Havdalah. Then I drove home.”
Ms. Dickman said that in her own community, “there are a decent number of Jews but not much observance.” Her daughter attends a Hebrew day school.
She was not raised in an observant home, although “we went occasionally to a Conservative shul,” she said. “I feel like I missed out on something, that I want to become more observant. I’m more interested now.”
Her husband is not as interested as she is, she added, so she will “take this slow. I want this to be a family thing.” Her daughter already has said that she would like to attend Shabbos Project events next year.
Michelle Mandelman of Montvale, another graduate of JWRP, was matched up with a Teaneck family for Shabbat dinner.
“I went with my husband and two sons,” she said, joking that she “didn’t give the kids a choice. I was a little nervous about that.”
Ms. Mandelman said she lit candles at her host’s home and then “went to Beth Abraham to a Carlebach-style Kabbalat Shabbat service.” Calling it both “an amazing experience and well-attended,” she said her own community does not have a lot of “daveners.”
“To be part of this had a huge impact on everyone, including my sons,” she said. “It didn’t depend on the cantor and rabbi. Everyone took part and took ownership. It makes all the difference.”
The oneg, held later, was run by a young rabbi. “He was so good that my younger son, who is 14, said if we had a rabbi like him, he would go to shul more.”
Committee member Dena Levie of Teaneck said she was very excited when she heard about the project, “since I’ve always liked to have interesting people at my Friday night meal,” whether her children’s teachers or someone she met while standing on line at ShopRite. “I was brought up in a house that did that.”
Ms. Levie, who is very involved in JWRP, said she loves exposing people to Shabbat. When she heard about the project, she emailed Ms. Farkas, sending her a link to the project video. From there, a committee was quickly mobilized.
“We broke into groups – for challah-baking, recruiting, programs, and a concert. We sat at different tables and brainstormed.” While time was short, she said, “we figured whatever we do is better than nothing.” Ms. Levie said she was impressed by the “powerhouse workers” on the local committee, who “planned every minute.”
Ms. Levie said she had been told by a friend from Cedarhurst, N.Y., that a joint Shabbat meal was planned by members of Orthodox and Conservative congregations. She hopes that next year’s Bergen County event “will also have different denominations eating together.
“We’ll have a year to plan,” she said. “We’ll try for 3,000 at the next challah-bake. We can do it.”