The long, lazy Friday afternoons of Israeli summer are being imbued with meaning as hundreds of Israelis partake in Yachad Program festivities celebrating the coming of Shabbat.
In community centers and parks across the country, Yachad’s 32 Jewish Cultural Facilitators are inviting Israelis of all ages and backgrounds to welcome the approaching Shabbat through music, games, crafts, and lively discussion over picnic dinners. Non-coercive in nature, the focus of these programs is not on the rituals involved in the upcoming Day of Rest, but rather on the richness and beauty inherent in the day and the opportunity families have to bond with one another.
“We gather in the park two hours before Shabbat,” reported Azur facilitator Yosi Duvdevani. “The entire community is invited for an arts activity, a story or a play, then we all gather in a circle for the Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony. The parents always tell me, ‘You can’t believe how much my children wait for this each week.'”
Netanya resident Sarah Haduk confirmed: “It’s so special to bring Shabbat in as a community: ultra-Orthodox, religious, traditional and secular, native Israelis and olim from many countries. Everyone looks forward all week to that moment when we disconnect from our hectic lives and connect with one another instead,” she said.
“One of those beautiful things we share”
Eliayahu Galil is the Yachad Facilitator of Maaleh Yosef Regional Council, responsible for no fewer than 22 communities in Israel’s upper Galilee. “For the religious population, Kabbalat Shabbat takes place in the synagogue; it’s obvious and it’s easy,” he said. “But for secular population, receiving the Shabbat has a different character. We do it in nature, we use local musicians, we make challot, have storytelling, games, arts and crafts or cooking – ways in which they can connect to the special nature of Shabbat and claim it in a meaningful way.
“Shabbat exists in the public sphere of Israel,” Galil added, “sometimes – too often – it’s the subject of controversy and fighting. When I first started as Yachad facilitator here, many were worried. They said, ‘Oh look, here comes the religious guy, he’ll want to lock the gates so there won’t be anyone driving on Shabbat.’ But with time, they have come to see that we are so much more alike than unalike, and Shabbat is just another one of those beautiful things we share.”
“I have to say, I am a secular woman, and the nicest part of these events is that there is absolutely no religious coercion, no hints or hidden content,” agreed participant Merav Cohen Arzi. “Rather, it’s all about togetherness, about cherishing our culture and our heritage,” she said.
Meaning, Guidance and Pride
The idea of a public Kabbalat Shabbat that would appeal to everyone was the brainchild of Yachad facilitator Racheli Semo, who launched the first Friday afternoon event in the Givat Massuah park back in 2010. According to Semo, “The most important element is the fact that it takes place outside of the synagogue. You have to understand your crowd; you have to answer their specific questions and quench their particular thirst,” she insisted. “In our ceremony, for instance, instead of saying the six Psalms that make up the bulk of the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat, we sing six Israeli songs which also correspond to the six days of creation – something which speaks to them and provides them with meaning, guidance and pride.”
Semo continued: “The Israeli poet Zelda wrote, ‘To light candles in all the worlds – this is Shabbat.’ As we sing together and receive the face of Shabbat, we look to our right and look to our left, we see the people amongst whom we live and we celebrate alongside them. This is what it means to light candles in all the worlds. We mustn’t keep the beauty of Shabbat inside the home; we must bring it into the public. We have an obligation to share this beautiful gift, which belongs to us all.”