Scene 1

It’s Thursday Night in Los Angeles. At the Ace Gallery hundreds of people slowly file past a 20-foot chrome statue of Vladimir Lenin’s head and up a wide concrete ramp leading to the vast venue for tonight’s event. Passing Lenin’s head one might feel the irony and wonder what the former communist revolutionary and atheist would think of the happening about to unfold. Inside the museum hundreds of tables were pre-set with the necessary ingredients for making challah.

Thirteen hundred Jewish girls and women from every kind of background and affiliation would soon be mixing flour, yeast and water, kneading dough and blessing it. They would soon be singing, dancing and celebrating the beautiful mitzvah of making challah and the joy of being a Jewish woman. It was like something out of a dream.

Scene 2

It’s Friday night in Los Angeles. On Pico Boulevard, five blocks are closed to traffic. Los Angeles Police officers secure the yellow ribbon-lined borders. Overhead, a police helicopter and drone circle the area’s airspace. On a rooftop above kosher restaurants and neighborhood stores, police snipers are positioned. By the time the sun sets and the Jewish Sabbath begins, three hundred tables set for ten, are set with white tablecloths, disposal shabbos dishes, grape juice and challah. The streets are magnificently lit up by large, strategically placed stadium light fixtures.

The feeling is ethereal, something akin to the 1989 film, Field of Dreams where Kevin Costner hears a voice in his Iowa cornfield whispering, “If you build it they will come.” Costner heeds to the voice only he can hear, plows his fields and builds a baseball diamond where eventually Shoeless Joe Jackson and his cronies of the 1920’s Black Box Scandal magically appear and once more play their beloved game.

“Is this heaven?” asks Joe.
“No it’s Iowa,” Costner answers.

One might have asked the same thing on Friday night. “Is this heaven?”

“No it’s Shabbos.”

Not Heaven, Not a Dream

Both of these events, The Great Big Challah Bake and Shabbos Project 3000 were Los Angeles’s response to the call of The Shabbat Project, which took place in hundreds of cities across the Jewish world October 22-23, 2015. The innovation of South African Chief Rabbi, Dr. Warren Goldstein, its original intention was to create an opportunity for the Jewish world to keep a complete Shabbos together. No small feat. Since its inception on 2013, the project has taken on different hues, as varied as the many flavors of Jews and the cities they live in. In Los Angeles at least, it ended up being less about all Jews keeping one Shabbos, and more about creating a feeling of unity and Jewish pride.

The Impossible

“When you believe the impossible, the incredible comes true.” So says the original trailer of Field of Dreams. Similarly, launching The Shabbat Project in Los Angeles was, if not impossible, then certainly a hard sell. The Jewish community here is as vast as LA’s sprawling landscape. Think Jewish Light Bulb joke:

“How many Jews does it take to change a light bulb?”
“30. One to change the bulb and 29 to discuss it ad nauseum.”

For every shul, school, or organization that embraced the idea, there were countless more who didn’t want to get involved. Like Kevin Costner, who at one point in the film wanted to give up, then heard the voice again, this time saying, “Go the distance,” there were three key people in this city who had an almost childlike belief in The Shabbat Project and against all odds, made it happen.

The Believers

Leanne Praw, a busy career mom, first heard about the Shabbat Project from her 50-year-old cousin in South Africa. “She was so excited and inspired after attending the challah bake, that she decided to start learning more about Judaism.” The following year Leanne’s cousin called to see if she could get the L.A. Jewish community involved. Though she’d never organized an event larger than her son’s bar mitzvah, Leanne agreed to try.

After making many unsuccessful attempts to engage different rabbis and organizations, she got discouraged. “The orthodox community here felt it couldn’t be done in Los Angeles because we are, unfortunately, very divided, unlike South Africa. There, everyone is traditional, if not orthodox. In a way it was true, because I did experience a lot of push back from non-orthodox organizations and synagogues. They were suspicious of our intentions. Surprisingly, I also got push back from some of L.A.’s outreach Rabbis, but for other reasons. They told me outreach is a process that takes a long time, not just one night.” In short, Leanne gave up. Sort of.

Six weeks before the 2014 Shabbat Project she received a phone call from Tali Merewitz, a well-known event and wedding planner. Dr. Lebowitz from Agudah had contacted Tali, asking her to pull something together. Leanne explained the issues to Tali, but told her, “If you are willing to help, lets see what we can do.”

In the meantime, Beth Leventhal, a full-time mom, and long time outreach activist with Aish LA, received an email from a friend who’d been asked to get involved, but didn’t have time. He thought she’d be great for the job. She showed up at a meeting, where she met up with Tali and Leanne. Together they pulled off L.A’s first challah bake with 500 women in attendance.

Three weeks before their event they found out about another believer’ – real estate developer Josh Golcheh, an active member of MyAish, the sephardic wing of Aish LA, and founder of United Nation of Hashem (UNO). Without them knowing, Josh had organized a shabbaton at Nessah Sephardic Synagogue, hoping to attract 1000 young people for dinner and lunch. “We had food for a 1,000. We’d sold 500 tickets two weeks before. I kept on going, praying we’d get the numbers. We did.”

Shabbos Project 2015

Leanne, Beth and Josh went on to become the planners of this year’s event. Wisely, they rallied together a great committee of volunteers who would help with many aspects of the events. It would take months of planning and many people putting in countless hours.

Beth and Leanne

Though involved in community projects, Beth had never taken on something of this magnitude. One of the most difficult aspects was fundraising. “I am not a fundraiser. But I had no choice.” Phone calls and emails brought in $5,000, enough to get started, but clearly not enough to cover the projected $30,000 in costs. Beth also discovered that the concept was difficult to sell. “Nobody in L.A. believed in the idea yet. People didn’t really understand what we were trying to accomplish.”

There’d been enough PR generated in past years to create a buzz, but it wasn’t clear what the ultimate goal was. According to Leanne, “We had to change our focus. This year it was more about achdus, Jewish unity. Of course we hoped to spark something in non-observant people, but it was more about bringing the community together to celebrate the beauty of Shabbos and baking challah.” Things finally clicked when they came up with the tagline, ‘One Voice, One Prayer, One Night’ for the challah bake and the Friday night dinner was advertised as ‘Shabbat 3,000 - the largest Shabbat dinner in the history of Los Angeles.’

Working tirelessly to advertise, using social media and posting flyers all over the city, they continued to build, hoping people would come. With one week to go, seven hundred women had pre-registered for the challah bake. Four hundred more women signed up at the event. It’s estimated that roughly 200 non-orthodox women attended. The highlight of the evening was singing Happy Birthday to an attendee’s grandmother who was celebrating her100th birthday that night and was making the blessing over challah for the very first time!

Even more miraculous, and to many people’s surprise, Josh’s dinner kept to its promise. Three thousand showed up! About 80 percent from the Sephardic community and 20 percent from the Ashkenazi community. Josh is hoping that next year, it will be a 50/50 split and 5,000 people. “Our communities really need to unify.”

Notwithstanding, the event was breathtaking in size and scope. Imagine 3,000 Jews, eating a Shabbos meal, singing Shalom Aleichem, making Kiddush, spontaneously breaking into song and dance, and walking from table to table getting to know each other. It was orderly, it was holy and it was unifying.

“I believe that in life, if you do the right thing, your desires will happen,” Josh explains. “Bringing Jews of different backgrounds together is an amazing idea, whatever your level of observance. And especially now, with everything going on in the world, it’s a perfect time to come together to show we’re stronger, and that no amount of terror can take away Shabbat or Jewish unity.”