‘It Was Grand’
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‘It Was Grand’

How the Project came to be a massive, interdenominational success in Great Neck.

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.

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