Shabbat: Reclaiming Jewish identity from anti-Semitism

On Shabbat, Jewish communities worldwide read the same Torah portion and feel part of the natural rhythm built into the Jewish week. We feel a sense of belonging in a world of fragmentation.

Two loaves of challah ready for Shabbat. Credit: Pixabay.
Two loaves of challah ready for Shabbat. Credit: Pixabay.
Rabbi Warren Goldstein
Rabbi Warren Goldstein is the chief rabbi of South Africa and the founder of the International Shabbat Project.

One year after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting shook world Jewry to its core, we are continuously flooded with disturbing reminders that, unbelievably, anti-Semitism is back on the agenda and threatens our way of life more seriously than we could have ever imagined in the modern era.

The latest wake-up call occurred when a neo-Nazi gunman came to kill Jews at a synagogue in Germany on Yom Kippur. By now, the attack in Halle is all too familiar. Violent anti-Semitic incidents rose 13 percent worldwide last year, according to Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center. The synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh, Poway (Southern California) and Halle have between them claimed 14 lives. A wave of anti-Semitic assaults has also conjured images that the Jewish community in Brooklyn, N.Y., believed were decades in the past.

Nor is this trend confined to the United States. In Germany, government officials have warned Jews against wearing kipahs for their own safety. A recent report by France’s National Human Rights Advisory Committee found that anti-Semitic acts in France have increased more than 70 percent in a year. And in the United Kingdom, the Community Security Trust recorded 1,652 anti-Semitic incidents in 2018, including 123 involving violence.

The hatred comes from east and west, left and right. How should we respond?

Certainly, there are practical measures—security measures, political activism and awareness campaigns—that must, and have, been taken to protect Jewish life and limb. But we must also remember that rising anti-Semitism is a threat to the Jewish soul, not just the Jewish body.

We cannot let our Jewish identity be defined by the hatred and oppression we suffer at the hands of others. A Jewish identity defined by anti-Semitism is depressing and empty—a pathetic fight for survival. It is also unsustainable. It is impossible to inspire a new generation of Jews with a message of persecution and suffering. We will only be truly inspired by a vision of Jewish identity and values, rooted in Judaism, one which gives us a sense of higher Divine purpose—of who we are and why we are here, of our moral calling is compelling enough to sustain and inspire Jewish continuity.

It is this life-affirming sense of Jewish identity that animates the vision of the international Shabbat Project to reignite and rejuvenate, the passion, inspiration and celebration of being Jewish.

The Shabbat Project is a global, grassroots movement that brings Jews from across the globe together to keep a single Shabbat, transcending religious beliefs, politics, ethnicity, geography and walls that separate us from each other. Last year, the Shabbat Project involved communities in 101 countries and 1,511 cities and towns. It was also held on the same weekend that the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting occurred. A year later, the Shabbat Project (to be held from Nov. 15-16) presents a more opportune time than ever to unify the Jewish people.

The Shabbat Project seeks to rejuvenate Jewish identity through the power and energy of Shabbat, and its values and ideas that have permeated and inspired Jewish life for thousands of years.

The most precious dimensions of Jewish values are celebrated and reaffirmed on Shabbat: faith, family, community and Jewish peoplehood. As we make kiddush at our Shabbat tables, we declare in the presence of family and friends, and give thanks to  G-d as the Creator of the Universe. Shabbat is also the nurturer and protector of the Jewish family. For thousands of years, this weekly holiday has held Jewish families together in love and loyalty. Strong, indomitable families have been the source of strength for the Jewish people. The oxygen of healthy families is uninterrupted time together to talk, share and bond. Shabbat creates a shared time and space for family members to connect with one another in a real, loving way. Through the Divine wisdom of its laws, we create space for our most precious relationships.

Paradoxically, we experience the freedom of Shabbat by embracing the restrictions of the day. Not being able to drive a car or go to work, or turn on our phones and screens frees us to enjoy a day without frantic travel, traffic, errands, appointments and commitments. We can spend the day connecting to family, friends, community and G-d—recharging ourselves physically, emotionally and spiritually. We eat together, pray together, laugh and celebrate together.

Shabbat gives us the blessing of belonging. We are not alone in the world. We are part of something much greater and larger: the Jewish people. Shabbat holds us together as a people. On Shabbat, Jewish communities worldwide read the same Torah portion and feel part of the natural rhythm built into the Jewish week. We feel part of a community. We feel a sense of belonging in a world of fragmentation. We rediscover a Jewish identity rooted in the life-affirming values of faith, family and community.

There is a sense that we come together through the Shabbat Project not because the hatred of others forces us to do so, but because we celebrate being Jewish, appreciating the bountiful blessings of Shabbat in our lives.

Ultimately, the Shabbat Project has resonated with so many because it gives us the opportunity to define Jewish identity on our own terms—through our Divine purpose and values—rather than through the force of hatred and the struggle for survival; through joy and celebration, not pain and persecution. Shabbat allows us to give a new generation of Jews an inspired Jewish identity—one that they will be proud to embrace.

Rabbi Warren Goldstein is the chief rabbi of South Africa and founder of the international Shabbat Project, which will be held from Nov. 15-16.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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