The Shabbos Project. Ever since I saw the video about how the South African Jewish community, most of whom are not observant, came together to try out a Shabbos, I’ve been gripped by the idea. The pictures of hundreds of Jewish women baking challah on the streets of Johannesburg and the thousands that attended the Havdala concert, brought tears to my eyes. I loved the opportunity this initiative offered of a community coming together to try one Shabbos. Living in a community where Shabbos observance is far from the norm, the success of this project brought me hope that one day, maybe my community would be ready to try this.
But although we’ve tried to bring this project to Charleston and some have participated, we have not experienced the success that South Africa was blessed with. While many non-observant Jews are starting to see the appeal of powering down for 25 hours in order to focus on family and spirituality, it seems that for most, it is daunting to keep one whole Shabbos. Most Jews in our community do not have a background and learning all of the information Shabbos entails is overwhelming. And since very few families in Charleston keep Shabbos, it is hard to be different, especially when many kids’ activities and events take place on a Saturday.
I never quite comprehended this last point, until Fay-Novit Grabin (otherwise known as Bubbie Fay) told me her story. A legendary figure in Charleston, Bubbie Fay is in her 80’s and has more energy and passion for Judaism than anyone I know. In years gone by, she was the driving force in keeping our day school going; fundraising to keep the doors open and finding the Head of School who set our school on its track of excellence. She planned event after event for our shul in order to keep it vibrant; volunteered on the Chevra Kaddisha when that meant she had to sew the tachrichim (burial shrouds), and to this day, everyone knows you don’t mess with Bubbie Fay’s (actually, the shul’s) kitchen.
This woman who literally lives to strengthen Judaism in Charleston, was raised in Denmark, South Carolina, with no Jewish education, and aside from the presence of her grandmother’s candlesticks which her mother lit every week, little Jewish observance. When she got married and moved to Charleston, she slowly embraced yiddishkeit and together, she and her husband took on one mitzvah after the next until they were not only observant, but one of the backbones of the Jewish community.
Meeting this firebrand of a woman, no one would ever think she could be insecure about her Judaism, but she recently confided in me how difficult it was to be one of the only observant Jews among her friends. Many would go out to non-kosher restaurants while she was left behind; she was one of the few who was Shomer Shabbos, which cast her aside as “different”. A half century later, despite all that she’s accomplished, she still remembers how isolated she sometimes felt, and how painful it was.
Not everyone has the strength of a Bubbie Fay and hearing her story, I understand why it is so difficult for Jews in Charleston to try one Shabbos, no matter how intriguing an idea they may find it to be. But as much as I get it, every year as The Shabbos Project rolls around and I see pictures on Facebook of communities that were able to pull it off, I feel inspired but also a little sad that our community is not among them.
And so this year, for the International Shabbos Project, we’ve decided to participate but try something different.
Sometime around Rosh Hashana, I received the Eishes Chayil Candle Lighting Treasury in the mail and after picking it up to read, I soon found myself unable to put the book down. The author, Rabbi Dov Weller, takes a mitzvah that I have always taken for granted and makes it fresh and meaningful by going into explanations about the customs and sharing moving stories.
Fifty years ago, most Jewish women, no matter how far removed they were from Judaism, lit Shabbos candles, which is perhaps why many conjure the image of a woman lighting candles as the emblem of Judaism. Nowadays, for whatever reason, many Jewish women do not light. But inspired by the book, this week, we are daring to attempt something tremendous: to encourage every Jewish household in Charleston to light Shabbos candles in honor of the Shabbos Project.
Despite the simplicity of the idea, I’ve feared that like other Shabbos initiatives we’ve tried to encourage, it won’t catch on. I was pleasantly surprised when many of the other Jewish organizations and synagogues in town agreed to encourage their congregants to join in. I was even more excited when a group of women came up to me in shul to tell me they had decided to join our initiative and bring in Shabbos with candles. A number of them admitted they had lit many years ago but for whatever reason, had stopped lighting. One woman told me she would need to dust off her grandmother’s candlesticks, but she was excited to bring this mitzvah to her home once more. Many spoke with nostalgia about watching their grandmothers light and the beauty it had brought to the home. These women were from across the spectrum of the Jewish community- Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, unaffiliated and their messages have infused me with hope that maybe we can really bring candle lighting back to our community, even if it is just for one week.
But ironically, there is one woman in our Jewish community who will not be lighting Shabbos candles this Friday: Fay Novit- Grabin. This Friday, Bubbie Fay will be having heart surgery and will be unable to light. And so many in our community have decided to dedicate the community candle lighting initiative in the merit of her refuah shlaima.
Nothing could be more fitting. Because there is a piece of Bubbie Fay’s story that I did not share. When women light Shabbos candles, the Tefilla we whisper is for us to merit to raise children and grandchildren who love and fear G-d, who illuminate the world with Torah and ma’asim tovim (good deeds). With all the of the challenges that Bubbie Fay endured to be frum, she was rewarded for her years of mesiras nefesh, (self-sacrifice) with the fruition of this Tefilla, in a way that is truly an anomaly in Charleston. This woman from Denmark, South Carolina is the proud grandmother of seven grandchildren, all frum and eighteen frum great-grandchildren. One of her grandchildren is Rabbi Dov Weller, author of the Candle Lighting Treasury, who has illuminated the world, with his insights on candle lighting, and who was the inspiration for the candle lighting initiative.
And so with the light that Bubbie Fay inspired within her own family and community, and through the powerful words of her grandson, may the light of the Jewish women’s candles in Charleston this week, be a merit for her complete recovery.
Please join the Charleston community and daven for Fayge Rochel bas Chaya Bayla at candle lighting.