Opening the Window to Spirituality
Shabbat in Israeli society is often viewed as a day of conflict, not a day of rest. The perception amongst many secular Israelis is that the religious are unwilling to allow any public transport or the opening of any public places of entertainment, thereby forcing many people to stay at home. Meanwhile, many religious Israelis believe that the secular population only wants to have fun and isn’t concerned with the traditional sanctity of the day.
This challenge is met head-on by the Yachad Program for Jewish Identity‘s Jewish identity coordinators; during the summer months, they harness the long Fridays to run engaging public activities enabling secular Israelis to celebrate the beauty of Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to them.
“People are thirsty to connect to their roots and also to connect to one another,” says Yachad Program educational director Yigal Klein. “The Kabbalat Shabbat activities give them an opportunity to do both in a fun, significant and non-threatening environment.”
“This is how we welcome Shabbat in 2019”
Each community celebrates differently, welcoming the approaching Shabbat through a combination of live music, team games, arts and crafts, storytelling, discussion over picnic dinners and wine, challah-baking workshops or communal Kiddush and candle-lighting. The focus of the gatherings is not on the rituals involved in the Sabbath, but rather on the richness and beauty inherent in the day; traditional texts mingle with contemporary Hebrew literature, classic poetry and the Israeli songbook. There are as many kippot and hair coverings as there are bare heads. Participants sing along and get up and dance.
“I love this initiative!” enthused Sara, a 29-year-old resident of Beit Shean. “It’s not coercive, it’s fun, and it gets people together in a lovely environment to relate a simply message: We are all different and yet we must all live together. Let us find the ties that bind us… ties like Shabbat.”
The communal Kabbalat Shabbat idea was initiated in 2010 by veteran Yachad Jewish identity coordinator Racheli Semo of Jersualem’s Givat Massua neighborhood. Semo explains that “the most important element is the fact that the festivities take place outside of the synagogue, because otherwise people who identify as secular would not feel welcome.” Today, Yachad’s 48 coordinators run Kabbalat Shabbat in community centers, parks and public spaces all across the country, from Eilat to the Golan Heights.
“This is how we welcome the Shabbat in 2019,” summarized Nati, a 43-year-old father of two from Yavne. “We celebrate our heritage – based on the past, we hang out and drink wine and enjoy the here and now, and we plan for our mutual future by building communities based on tolerance and respect.”
A Social and Cultural Encounter
The Yachad Program took the Kabbalat Shabbat sessions a step further last year with a brand new initiative called “Opening a Window to the Ruach” – playing on the Hebrew word that means both “wind” and “spirituality.” As opposed to meetings in the city’s public parks, this program specifically targets residents of newly-constructed hi-rise buildings in brand new neighborhoods, with the goal of encouraging them to create a strongly-bonded community on the backdrop of their shared heritage. The uniqueness of the initiative is that it empowers the residents themselves – both religious and secular – to take an active part in the planning and production of the Kabbalat Shabbat, which takes place in the building project’s central courtyards or shared green spaces.
“Our community joined the program last year and now it’s already a tradition,” related Ilan, a 36-year-old from Kfar Saba who identifies as secular. “All the neighbors take part – this one plays music, that one prepares a few words, another bakes a cake… we split up the jobs via our WhatsApp group so no one feels unduly burdened. It’s really a fantastic, peaceful way to cap off the week and bring in the Shabbat together. For the older generation it’s reminiscent of our youth, before Israel became so urban – when a neighborhood was still a neighborhood. But perhaps the most gratifying part of it is that our kids really love and look forward to Shabbat,” he said.
“To me, the most important part of our neighborhood Kabbalat Shabbat is that no one is excluded,” said 32-year-old new mother Shira, of Netanya. “Yachad has empowered us as a group to cut through the cynicism and the barriers and to get straight to the core: Shabbat belongs to us all and we celebrate it together as a social and cultural encounter in a way that is meaningful to everyone. In our community, Shabbat is not about conflict,” she concluded. “It’s about unity.”