By Cindy Mindell
Duke University professor and behavioral scientist Dan Ariely is known around the world for his work in psychology and behavioral economics, his New York Times bestsellers, and his popular TED Talks.
The widely published Israeli-American scholar considers himself a secular Jew. So it was especially surprising when, during a consulting trip to South Africa in 2013, he helped spark a nationwide Shabbat experience that engaged thousands of people across the country.
On Oct. 24 and 25, the South African “Shabbos Project” will loose the bonds of Johannesburg and Cape Town and go global, when Jews from Albania to Zimbabwe unite in celebrating Shabbat wherever they are.
Stamford is among more than 170 Jewish communities in 30 countries that will observe the October event. A group of volunteers in Waterbury and West Hartford are also coordinating the effort in the middle of the state, including home-hospitality opportunities.
The idea for the original project, which brought South African Jews together from Oct. 11-12, 2013, resulted from a conversation between Ariely and the country’s chief rabbi, Warren Goldstein. The behavioral psychologist sought out the spiritual leader to discuss Judaism; in turn, the rabbi wanted to know how he could influence his community to increase its commitment and connection to Torah, starting with Shabbat observance.
Ariely suggested a basic behavioral tenet: just get people to try it once.
Goldstein did. He launched a massive promotional campaign, enlisting high-profile Jewish celebrities, posting billboard ads in major cities, and spreading the word via YouTube and social media. A website and printed toolkit provided educational materials about the observance, and dozens of synagogues around the country created programming for the event.
In the end, by most estimates, the Shabbos Project engaged some 20,000 to 30,000 Jews of diverse backgrounds throughout the country, many of whom kept Shabbat for the first time in their lives. Surveyed afterwards, 90 percent said that they would do it again. Back in the U.S., Ariely also observed his first-ever Shabbat from sundown to stars out.
Word began to spread, accompanied by surprise at how successful the project had been. Chabad of Stamford co-director Leah Shemtov heard about the event from her parents, who live in the family’s native South Africa. Shemtov gathered fellow South African Jewish friends in Stamford to see if a similar event could be organized locally. When Goldstein announced that the 2014 Shabbos Project would be going global, Stamford was already on board.
Unlike the major Jewish population areas in South Africa, where many people live within walking distance of a synagogue, the story is different in Stamford and other Connecticut communities, Shemtov says. To address the problem, her group explored options for home hospitality and special rates at Stamford hotels. In the end, they realized, “people don’t want to be stuck in one place or in one way to observe Shabbat,” Shemtov says. “Whether it’s at home, with friends, with the community, or independently, there’s not just one way to do it.”
In the end, Chabad of Stamford became an information clearinghouse for interested participants throughout Fairfield County, and is organizing a community-wide Havdalah service to cap the experience.
Rabbi Chaim Bernstein heads up the Waterbury-based group of volunteers. He presented the Shabbos Project to the board of the Jewish Federation of Western Connecticut, who saw the project both as a way to educate community members about Shabbat and connect them with fellow Jews throughout the world. The Federation will host a community-wide women’s challah-baking event in preparation for the observance, on Thursday, Oct. 23.
“The project is such a beautiful idea in terms of uniting Jews of many backgrounds to keep Shabbat like it’s been kept for thousands of years,” Bernstein says. “When I heard about it I thought, why not give people that exposure? Especially in our fast-paced world, Shabbat is an island of tranquility.”
To register for the Shabbos Project and download educational materials: theshabbosproject.org
The Challah-baking event will be held on Thursday, Oct. 23, 7 p.m. on the Walzer Family Jewish Community Campus, 444 Main Street North in Southbury. Fee is $18. For more information, call (203) 267-3177 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the Shabbos Project in Connecticut, including communal events and home hospitality: facebook.com/theshabbosproject.org / email@example.com.
For events in Greater Stamford: chabadhousestamford.org.
Comments? email firstname.lastname@example.org.