The Five Towns, Far Rockaway, and surrounding areas are centers of vibrant Orthodox Judaism. The community is home to numerous day schools, yeshivas, restaurants and every possible Jewish amenity. One would think that amid the hustle and bustle of this robust area, The Shabbat Project would be something too basic and rudimentary to take off.
Yet it was not. It transformed the neighborhood.
Twenty-nine shuls participated in this initiative with a colossal thirty-five events over Shabbat in every corner of the community. Ten schools were actively involved and thousands of other people participated in this incredible initiative by making gifts for visitors and hosting special speakers, and attending challah bakes, kumsitzes and special assemblies.
Knead That Dough: Young participants learn how
to bake challah.
What does the Shabbat Project mean to a neighborhood which is home to so many observant Jews?
The team of volunteers who spearheaded the Shabbat Project in the Five Towns and Far Rockaway set up three goals:
- Reaching those in the neighborhood who were not yet observing Shabbat. This was achieved by full-page advertisements in all the local papers, banners on main roads, lawn signs, and a strong social media campaign.
- Empowering those observing Shabbat to invite friends, coworkers and neighbors to their homes for the entire Shabbat or a part of it. This allowed people to spend that special time together and thereby add the dimension of Jewish unity to the project.
- Raising the bar. This was the Shabbat for every individual to elevate their observance of Shabbat, whether it is for the first time or regarding something they had been doing since childhood.
The results were unprecedented.
The weekend began with a Challah Bake for women at the Atlantic Sands. It was sold out days before with 650 seats, and when another 350 seats were added, they only took one and a half hours to be sold. Another 200 women showed up at the door. It was an event to remember. 1,200 women gathered from every walk of life. There were women from Far Rockaway, women from Woodmere, women from Bayswater and women from the city. More than 200 unaffiliated women participated as part of large groups which came in and as guests of residents.
After step-by-step instruction from Mrs. Judy Rubin and Mrs. Malky Feldman, all the women took a silent moment to pray before separating challah. The atmosphere was tangible. After the challah was separated and the dough was left to rise, what began as a song turned into unstoppable dancing. Eitan Katz, who was
playing the music, followed the lead of the crowds. Mrs. Debbie Greenblatt gave a powerful message and the braiding began.
Girls from every high school were so enthusiastic that many of them gathered in two lines at the exit to serenade everyone as they left. The dancing went on well past 11p.m.
In the words of Rebbetzin Weinberger: “A true Kiddush Hashem! The women of Klal Yisrael will surely bring the Mashiach.” Rebbetzin Bender noted that the men had their siyum hashas, a large-scale group conclusion of the Talmud-learning cycle, held in large venues in different cities, but the women had this Challah Bake! That was the magnitude of the experience. There was an unparalleled sense of unity which transformed the evening.
Over Shabbat, every corner of the community was involved.
Each shul participated in a different way, in tandem with their membership. Chabad of the Five Towns had a community meal housing more than 250 people in a tent in the parking lot. All the North Woodmere shuls partook in a special davening and community-wide oneg. Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz of Beis Haknesses of North Woodmere commented that so many of his congregants had invited guests that he and his wife hopped from house to house greeting the newcomers.
Congregation Beth Sholom hosted a joint meal with Temple Beth El, which was sold out. It fostered unity and focused on common ideals and values. A Jewish Renaissance Experience (JRE) group of tens of unaffiliated Jews from Westchester spent Shabbat in Lawrence/Far Rockaway. They spent time at the White Shul for a lively davening which went on for almost two hours, and community meals at the Wolfsons and the Martons.
The Young Israel of Long Beach hosted a special NSCY Shabbaton with programming. At the Friday night dinner which housed 100 people, tables brought together those who were shomer Shabbat with those joining to experience it. In the words of the organizers, “Not only did it make their Friday night special, but it definitely enhanced our Shabbat as well.”
At the Young Israel of Far Rockaway, former evangelical minister, Gavriel Sanders, spoke to a crowd of more than 200 on Shabbat afternoon on the topic of “A Minister’s Journey to Judaism.”
A group of teens at risk from Baltimore had a Shabbaton in the area and joined some of the community meals. There were numerous special davenings and onegs in every area marking a special Shabbat for both regulars and visitors. Some shuls, like Tiferes Tzvi and Bais Tefila of Inwood, chose to use this Shabbat as the time to launch special Shabbat learning initiatives. In Bayswater there was a unified community program at the yeshiva. There was a special davening and an oneg attended by more than 200 people. Tens of guests came for Shabbat, many of whom were not observant. In the afternoon, there were special workshop shiurim throughout
Bayswater and a special women’s seudat shlishit with Rebbetzin Ivy Kalazon, which was attended by more than 100 women.
And these are just the public events. There were numerous private events of group meals uniting neighbors and friends as we were all keeping Shabbat together. Every part of the community was inspired.
This special Shabbat closed with a Havdalah concert at Beth Sholom. It began with a Carlebach Havdalah in the dark from Shema Koleinu and was followed by a lively Maccabeats concert. With the room sold out with an audience of 850 tickets, it was an uplifting conclusion to an incredible weekend.
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