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Guess Who’s Coming for Shabbos? Project Inspire Shabbaton Unifies Religious & Secular Jews
by Leah Bleiberg
After witnessing 350 secular and observant Jews come together at Project Inspire’s Shabbaton last Shabbos, Moshiach can’t be far behind. A grassroots movement to unify the Jewish People by encouraging Jews to share Torah’s beauty and wisdom with fellow Jews, Project Inspire pulled off an unprecedented happening: the uniting of Jews across the entire spectrum of religious involvement happily sharing together in Jewish inspiration and growth.
If blazing fireworks and blaring trumpets came down from the skies, it would not begin to approximate the emotions that ran through this over-the-top weekend. The achdus, warmth and camaraderie between the range of orthodox attendees and Jews who know almost nothing of Judaism was beyond breathtaking, paving the way for a long-awaited unification in Klal Yisroel. Kiruv – what the Novominsker Rebbe called “the mitzva of our time” – had reason to celebrate this thrilling success.
Project Inspire’s breakthrough concept – to expand and strengthen the incredible efforts of regular baaleibatim who are not Kiruv professionals to forge one-on-one relationships with unaffiliated Jews – came to fruition by holding a Shabbaton where each frum attendee had to bring at least one non-frum guest.
I personally was particularly grateful because I got the opportunity to meet one of my closest friends for the first time. About four and a half years ago, I began a Torah study program by phone with Sharlyne through Partners in Torah. Sharlyne, living alone in a modified log cabin about an hour outside of Cleveland near her grown children, took the courageous step to ask for a study partner to explore Judaism. While we started by learning, it didn’t take long for talks to include families, interests, and challenges. In time, a full-fledged, sincere friendship bloomed. While eager to meet my phone-pal, I knew that distance and timidity stood in the way. With no plans for her to come to NY, it didn’t seem likely we’d meet soon.
Last February, at their wildly successful convention in Stamford, Project Inspire’s dynamic leader, Rabbi Chaim Sampson asked, “Who would be interested in having another get-together like this, but this time each frum person would have to bring a non-frum friend?” A number of hands went up with mine and I thought, “Sharlyne!”
We spoke. While she didn’t like flying and a foot problem precluded driving, I remained hopeful. The date drew closer. Project Inspire staff worked overtime to meet all the many obstacles such a weekend might present. I needed an answer. I didn’t want to pressure her, but thought it would be the perfect venue for us to meet. She wavered. I said, “Space will run out. Let me know if you actually book airline tickets and I’ll book reservations.” Well, she did and I did and we just experienced the weekend of a lifetime.
To see so many frum people bring friends, co-workers and relatives – all getting along like one happy family – was thrilling. A family from Baltimore brought four unaffiliated singles they host for Shabbos and have befriended; a couple from Boro Park brought their daughter’s ballet teacher who invited a friend who invited another. These three young ladies now have new Shabbos invitations from other participants. A Boro Park man brought his Oorah “Torah-mate”, a growing individual who truly appreciated the boost this weekend provided. Nine women, recruited by J-Inspire city leaders in Teaneck, came, some with their husbands and families as well. These women had jointly attended JWRP, a Birthright-like trip for Jewish Moms, that partners with Project Inspire and many other kiruv organizations to offer ten day life-altering, highly-subsidized experiences in Israel.
Four years ago, Project Inspire lay people from the Five Towns launched a Beginners Holiday Service resulting in ongoing weekly study groups and programs. A dozen people came together to this Shabbaton as a result of these pioneering efforts of the frum activists. A Queens woman came with the Israeli girl who she reached out to when she met her at the mall kiosk where she works. The Traveling Chassidim, providing a Chasidische Shabbos experience including music and ruach at Kiruv Shabbatons, brought a wonderful couple from Yardley Pennsylvania. A travel agent in Boro Park introduced his wife to an El Al Sales Rep who seemed interested in Judaism and they brought her and her friend.
If any of the guests were hesitant about what it would be like to spend Shabbos with “religious” people, Lori Adelson, who went on the JWRP trip with her Rockland County neighbors described the outcome: “I was nervous and worried about being judged, but everything I experienced was just the opposite – so much warmth and acceptance. My only regret was that I couldn’t hear every single speaker!”
What makes Project Inspire events so enjoyable is the professionalism. Everything runs smoothly; everyone’s relaxed. Unaffiliated guests dressed respectfully, but comfortably; no one felt pressured. The Hotel Somerset Bridgewater in NJ provided an elegant setting for what was booked as a “Shabbat Retreat for the Body and Soul.” J-Inspire is the division of Project Inspire that offer programs directly to the less committed Jewish audiences – this was the first “J-Inspire” weekend. Finances, always difficult for non-profits, were arranged so cost wouldn’t be a deterrent for secular Jews, unfamiliar with the high costs of running an lavishly kosher-catered, impressively professional speaker-filled weekend. Somehow, they pulled off a terrific program, keeping costs unprecedentedly low.
The speakers were beyond everyone’s expectations. A talented, sought after professional, Kivi Bernhard, from Atlanta via South Africa, wowed the crowds with his masterful presentations usually reserved for Forbes 500 companies. Newlyweds Ben and Ella from Rego Park, could not get over how Kivi stood up to Bill Gates’ invitation to speak on a Saturday, even after Microsoft offered to double his fee to speak on Shabbos. Principle prevailed over money and Microsoft acquiesced to Sunday – a powerful lesson and Kidush Hashem for all present.
Yeshiva Aish Hatorah’s popular rebbe and star speaker, Rabbi Gavriel Friedman, had everyone begging for more of his charismatic, hysterically entertaining presentations, that taught critically important lessons. He electrified the audience by explaining how when we judge others negatively for what we ourselves also do, we actually seal our own fate. After side-splitting antics with rapid-fire summaries, the lessons were rooted positively in our brains.
The only difficult part of the weekend was choosing among the many lectures in the Breakout Sessions. Project Inspire’s own team – Rabbi Chaim Sampson, Rabbi Simcha Barnett and the engaging Rabbi Yaakov Salomon – all did a spectacular job, especially with the famed Discovery Seminar selctions — presenting evidence beyond a reasonable doubt as to the authenticity of the Torah and its Divine authorship. Rabbi Yitzchak Feldheim, whose not-to-be-missed classes included “Women are from Ribs & Men are from Mud” and “The Garden of Eden – The Original Theme Park,” left participants in awe of his remarkable insights. Nili Couzens, Kaila Lasky, Tzippy Reifer and Esti Stahler broke down inaccurate stereotypes and clarified how Jewish women are changing the world. As Sharlyne summarized, “informative, entertaining and inspiring, not to mention the fabulous food!”
Everything ran like clockwork from the Friday afternoon challah baking to the uplifting Shabbos ruach, to the sumptuous meals and buffets including a magical, music-filled midnight barbecue on Motzei Shabbos. The excited responses kept the atmosphere at an ongoing high.
Zev Friedman, a Lander College student noted, “Each participant could take their own personalized message from the presentations. No one felt like it was ‘mussar’.” The positive vibes and lack of negative judging alone were enough to call it a great success. To see the spontaneous dancing on either side of the mechitza for Kabolos Shabbos and after Havdola bespoke how much this meant to everyone there.
One song recurred throughout the weekend, “Gesher Tzar Me’od”. Yes, kiruv can feel like walking on a narrow bridge, but the main thing is “not to be afraid.” Each Jew is responsible and obligated to help bring back all of Hashem’s children to Him. As Rabbi Yaakov Salomon summed up, referring to Project Inspire efforts and mission: “We taught you, we inspired you, now go out and do it.”