February 19, 2020

Bringing Shabbat Into the Collective Israeli Conscience

Ruth Kabbesa Abramzon invites me for a ‘Shabbat Yerushalmi’ at her Jerusalem home with her husband and four small children. 

“We have a small room and wonderful children — come anytime,” she said. It’s an invitation through the organization she founded — Shabbat Unplugged — with support from the Avi Chai Foundation. The goal is to have Israeli Jews bring Shabbat into their lives, into their homes and to the forefront of the Israeli collective.

In the tradition of the great Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik, Kabessa Abramzon sees Shabbat as a cornerstone of both Jewish identity and Israeli society. “Even if you are not religious, you know Shabbat from a traditional place, from an Israeli place. It has a place in Israeli society,” she said.

In Israel, Shabbat “rest” is built in. Most Israelis do not work on Shabbat. There is no school on Shabbat. Kabessa Abramzon wants Israelis to think beyond this, to having a conversation about what Shabbat means to them beyond the cessation of work. “We’re all so busy all week, we want to unplug but we can’t seem to. On Shabbat, we can be humans,”  she said. 

Kabassa Abramzon believes it is this “re-souling” that we all need to focus on, in our private lives, our family lives and in the public sphere.

“We need a conversation about how we as a society do Shabbat together.”

She has a background in public policy, and while studying at the Mandel School for Educational Leadership, she led round tables with government officials discussing common values in policy-making. “If you don’t know the values of the society, you don’t know what you want to build here, you can’t do public policy,” she explained.  

She also believes Shabbat is a foundational value; a common starting point for Jewish unity. She urges us to stay away from the polarizing debates on Shabbat transportation, interpretation of Jewish law and the other talking points usually associated with discussing Shabbat in Israeli society. “The framing is always about the problem,” she said. “Let’s not look at it as a problem, let’s look at it as an opportunity.”

That opportunity, she said, is to have shared time as a society. “At the end of the day, this is the state of the Jewish people. Is Shabbat something that everyone does at his own home, or something we do together? We need a conversation about how we as a society do Shabbat together,” she said.

Kabessa Abramzon is inviting every Israeli to explore Shabbat “on a personal level. Everyone can answer the question what Shabbat means to them.”  

It’s these types of conversations that Shabbat Unplugged helps facilitate, through its network of more than 50 partner organizations throughout the country, its programming, media campaigns and educational materials. 

Bialik wrote: “Shabbat is not only the heart of Israeli existence, but the heart of human existence. Without the Sabbath, the image of God and the image of humankind ceases to exist in the world.”  

With Shabbat Unplugged, Kabessa Abramzon hopes Israelis will become just a little more human. “We have a precious gift,” she said, “on a personal and national level, and we need to understand how we use it and enjoy it.’