Staff writer Steve Lipman’s article, “South African ‘Shabbat Project’ Comes To U.S.” (Oct. 17), correctly notes that the overwhelming majority of participants in the Shabbos Project were Orthodox communities, but that Great Neck included some exceptions, including Reform synagogue Temple Beth El and Conservative Temple Israel of Great Neck.
In fact, there were other Conservative synagogues involved, including Marathon Jewish Center, Congregation L’Dor V’Dor Oakland Jewish Center, and Lake Success Jewish Center. They were joined by many other Orthodox and Sephardi congregations, including Great Neck Synagogue, Young Israel of Great Neck, Beth Hadassah, Ahavat Shalom, Shaare Tzion, Torah Ohr, Cherry Lane Minyan, Chabad of Great Neck, Chabad of Lake Success and Chabad of Little Neck. I write to elaborate upon how Great Neck became this notable and wonderful exception.
Informed by the South African Shabbos Project, six months ago, two of my dear friends, Sarah Asal Rabizadeh and Farangiss Sedaghatpour, and I set out to reach out across the peninsula to spread the message of unity so beautifully articulated by the Shabbos Project.
From the beginning, we recognized that Great Neck’s population of Jews is more diverse than that of South Africa. Unlike South Africa, Great Neck has no chief rabbi. Rather, we boast at least 25 congregations led by many rabbis.
Unlike South Africa, Great Neck is home to significant numbers of both Sephardi and Ashkenazi families. The Sephardi include Iranian, Mashadi, Iraqi, Syrian, Israeli and French groups. Also in contrast to South Africa, Great Neck has active Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, as well as three Chabad congregations. We three reached out to as many laypeople from each congregation as we could. We invited them to join us in meetings, dreaming aloud about what shared Shabbat experiences could look like.
We came to realize quickly that the the name of our effort would not be “Shabbos,” but the Hebrew “Shabbat.” We also recognized that although the original Shabbos Project initiative required signing off on a manifesto and pledging to keep the Sabbath according to the laws of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), if we were to reach out broadly and widely, we would emphasize not only strict Shabbat observance but Shabbat consciousness as well. We left to individual congregations to decide whether to sign up for the South African initiative.
After we built trust among the laity, we invited the clergy to join the conversation. We hosted a major meeting attended by rabbis across the spectrum of Jewish movements and cultures and posed the question, “What can we do together?” Fortunately, we learned that there was a lot we could do together, and we did.
More than 20 Great Neck synagogues participated in the Great Neck Shabbat Project. We hosted an enormous challah-making workshop at a local catering facility and more than 1,000 people (including men, women, and children from multiple backgrounds and synagogues) in attendance.
We hosted a post-Shabbat concert, which included having 10 rabbis from different congregations, movements, and cultures together onstage during Havdalah. Many of the participating synagogues hosted sold-out Shabbat dinners on Friday evening, and had enhanced adult learning, children’s playtime, singles events and other fun activities, including home hospitality and outreach.
Some congregations produced charming videos and engaging Shabbat pamphlets. Great Neck Synagogue hosted, and co-sponsored with other congregations, an Oneg on Friday night and invited the entire community to attend to hear talks from rabbis and sing melodies with cantors. Many people have reported feeling an increased connection to Judaism and Shabbat as a consequence of this process.
In short, we built relationships and trust among groups that ordinarily remain in their own silos. It was grand. In a world where post-denominational Judaism is advancing, and where the Pew study says many Jews are unaffiliated, perhaps it is time we come out of our synagogues and denominational shells to recognize our co-religionists as our neighbors and fellow parents of future Jews. Already we see that our efforts have led to a monthly gathering of synagogue presidents from across Great Neck, and to increased collegiality among the clergy and laity.
Rebecca Yousefzadeh Sassouni lives in Great Neck, L.I. For more information, visit www.greatneckshabbatproject.com.