The Secular WSJ Columnist Who Inspired The Shabbos Project

The Shabbos Project: an initiative which began in South Africa a year and a half ago and aims to encourage every Jew in the world observe one shabbos together, has gotten quite a bit of buzz. But how did it all begin? Not how you’d expect! Dan Ariely – a behavioral psychologist whose Wall Street Journal column (“Ask Ariely”) I read regularly – was the man behind the plan. Ariely, a secular Israeli, had a question a few years ago: if a Jew were to keep one mitzvah and one mitzvah only, which would be the most impactful? He asked the chief rabbi of South Africa as well as the chief rabbi of England. Both rabbis independently gave him the same answer: shabbos. Why? Because the act of keeping shabbos is so powerful, they explained, that its inspiration would trickle into others areas of life. Our sages teach that “mitzvah goreres mitzvah” – the one commandment leads to another, but the rabbis felt this was especially true for shabbos.

Dan wanted to test this hypothesis so he approached the chief rabbi of South Africa, Warren Goldstein, with a proposal. What would happen, he wondered, if they got all the Jews in the country (which has pretty traditional Jewish community) to keep one shabbos together. This conversation with Ariely is what inspired Rabbi Goldstein to roll out the “one Shabbat” concept.  The project itself was devised and brought into existence by Rabbi Goldstein and in the end, had over 90% participation and the feedback was astounding – numerous lives were changed in meaningful ways. This year, in honor of The Shabbos Project, which takes place this shabbos – October 23-24  – I thought it would be nice to hear from a couple of people who were impacted by ‘The Shabbos Project social experiment’.

Yakir Fraiser, a sixteen year old high school student from Melbourne, is the first participant I spoke to. He was raised in a traditional Jewish home, but he never spent a fully observant shabbos until The Shabbos Project. Before his first full shabbos experience, Yakir always expected that twenty-five hours unplugged would be boring. He has never been one to just sit around and do nothing and figured that nothing was all one did on shabbos. In the end, he decided to give it a try because it was just “one day,” and if it was insufferable, it would be over before he knew it.

Much to his surprise, Yakir discovered something fascinating over those twenty-five hours – shabbos is truly enjoyable. The exact opposite of what he thought! Over the course of the shabbos, Yakir made a friend from Sydney who was “so normal” despite being religious. This friend, Eliyahu, recognized a passion in Yakir and told him about a Jewish school in Melbourne called Yeshiva College. Eliyahu suggested he check it out. While Yakir did feel differently after that initial shabbos he did not make any immediate changes nor did he look into the yeshiva. He simply returned to life as usual. But then, one day – he doesn’t even remember why or how – Yakir found himself on the Yeshiva College website. Before he knew it he was e-mailing them, taking entrance exams and then moving across the country to Melbourne to board with a family there. The family Yakir moved in with was not religious, which Yakir chose purposely, so that he could grow slowly in his observance. This past summer, though, he moved in with a religious family as Yakir is now fully observant.

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