Beth Swibel and her family try to celebrate Shabbat every week. But on Oct. 27, they’ll host other families for a Friday night dinner of brisket, chicken and potatoes as part of The Shabbos Project, a worldwide endeavor aimed at encouraging Jews everywhere to come together and sit down to a Shabbat dinner at least once a year.
“I think what I’m most looking forward to is that we don’t always get to see our friends — and not even just friends, but people in the community we want to get to know better — because life is busy,” Swibel said. “With this, we can.”
Swibel came to the project through her synagogue, Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, whose members have hosted similar Shabbat dinners in years past, although the Conservative congregation is participating in the Shabbos Project for the first time this year. Not only are congregants hosting dinners, but the synagogue itself is having a large one.
“We have done smaller dinners at people’s houses,” said Eric J. Ellman, who chairs B’nai Tzedek’s ritual committee. “But there are times when it is important to get together as one community and this seemed like one of those times.”
Ellman said that he and his family — and extended family coming in for his daughter’s bat mitzvah — will be going to the congregational dinner.
The Shabbos Project “is bigger than only one person,” he said. “There are other people doing the same thing as you around the world. Jews all coming together, doing the same thing on the same night, is really beautiful.”
The Shabbos Project originated in South Africa in 2013. This year, Marcelle Mervis, a Bethesda resident and South Africa native, undertook coordinating events across the Washington area.
“It’s a unity project,” Mervis said. “The whole idea belongs to everybody and is for everyone.”
The Shabbos Project typically includes challah bakes as well as dinners. The point is to encourage the observance of Shabbat traditions as a way of connecting not only with friends and family, but also with people they may not know, Mervis said.
When Mervis decided to participate the first time, she invited some of her neighbors, not knowing whether they’d accept.
“I just invited neighbors I’d never met before, but who I knew were Jewish,” she said. “I didn’t think they’d be interested, but they loved it and asked, ‘Are you going to do it again?’”
Locally, there are about 20 events — challah bakes and Shabbat dinners — listed on
theshabbatprojectdc.org. Among them is the “Community PINK Challah Bake” on Oct. 22, sponsored by the Sisterhood at Beth Sholom Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Potomac. The bake is pink because that’s the ribbon color for breast cancer awareness and October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The event will also include DNA tests for the BRCA genes.
The Sisterhood was already planning a challah bake when Mervis approached them about making the event part of the Shabbos Project, said Sisterhood President Elisa Elfasi. Now, she said, they went from planning for about 50 women to closer to 200.
“It’s just really nice to bring attention to the Shabbat,” she said. “I hope this will help whoever we reach to remember what Shabbat can be like.”
Why is challah baking part of the Shabbos Project?
Baking challah is a stepping stone to celebrating Shabbat, said Cantor Larry Eschler of Temple Beth Ami, a Reform congregation in Rockville. The congregation will hold both an adult and children’s challah bake on Oct. 27. And there will be a Shabbat dinner for the Hebrew school kindergartners.
“The whole thing for us is that we’ve been trying to get people to take 24 hours to get away from your phone and spend time with your families,” Eschler said.
The project is ultimately a way to encourage congregants to make Shabbat part of their lives, he said.
Swibel, who has in the past hosted Shabbat dinners as a member of her congregation, said her kids are ready for next weekend’s celebration.
“Oh, they love it,” she said. “The really love it. They get to stay up later and it’s a lot of fun for them.”