Keep Shabbat However You Wantby Jacqueline Bull January 2, 2018
Simone Abelsohn is a busy woman. She has an impressive resume of volunteer work and community involvement, but her main projects are being the program coordinator for Shabbat San Diego and the chair of Federation’s Next Gen.
Simone met me at her favorite kosher coffee shop before heading into work. Not only would she not let me pay for her coffee, she insisted that she buy for the two of us. I would come to realize if kindness, drive and love for one’s community had a physical manifestation, it would be Simone.
“I always say that my Federation story is that I grew up in single family homes. I had both a mom and a dad; they were divorced. They really wanted to send me to a private school. And so I was a scholarship child at San Diego Jewish Academy. Some of the funds came from the federation and various people in SAJAC helped my family through the [South African] immigration process. And growing up my mom always made sure I remembered ‘You’re there on scholarship.’ She always made sure I was appreciative and that I understood the blessing I was being given,” Simone said.
She was involved in various Jewish organizations through high school and college and then became a teacher at a Jewish school. She later quit teaching and went into real estate. She explains that at that time she felt she was missing a Jewish connection in her life. One day, a friend got her involved in Next Gen and she just took off from there.
One of her main involvements, Shabbat San Diego, was inspired by the Shabbos Project in Johannesburg, South Africa. Bringing the idea to San Diego, they wanted to keep the original spirit of connecting with family and friends and as a community, but have an emphasis on inclusivity to make it more welcoming to people who don’t normally keep an Orthodox Shabbat. This emphasis on community made the project a huge success in San Diego and become the example for other Jewish communities around the world to follow.
This welcoming spirit starts from Simone and radiates out to all corners of the organization and what they are trying to accomplish. They’ve expanded their reach from just the one weekend in October, to working with San Diego Jewish organizations and synagogues year round.
Simone explains that however people want to observe, taking an active interest in the Jewish community here is what they are trying to achieve. “You don’t have to keep Halachic Shabbat. If you don’t usually light Shabbat candles, and you do, we’re going to count you in as part of the project. If you don’t usually bake challah and you come to our challah bake, we’re going to count you in as part of the project. If you don’t normally spend five minutes on a Saturday to think ‘it’s Shabbat’ and ‘what does that mean to me?’ and you do this one time a year, we’re going to count you as part of the project. It can be whatever it is.”
Their belief is that showing how Shabbat doesn’t have to be the same for everyone encourages people to participate in their own way. “We’re hoping through this and showing that yes, Shabbat can be a Halachic Shabbat for 26 hours, Shabbat can also be a hike, Shabbat can also be a yoga class…Whatever it is that you want to make it, that is what Shabbat can be.”
And through people participating in the Shabbat, coming together, it illustrates the value of being a part of a community. “We want to show them that there is a strength and a core of a community. Not one of them is alone…That is something I’m personally passionate about being that child from a single-family household, it was the community that helped raise me. It was people at SAJAC that helped, it was people at the Federation that helped, it was Mike Hessel, the principal of the San Diego Jewish Academy that helped, it was my dad’s best friend, Barry, that helped. I feel like I’m a product of what the Shabbat project is trying to create, so I feel so passionate and blessed to be able to be such a huge part of it,” Simone said.
She adds, “Our community has such devoted and generous people with their time, finances, ideas, creativity [and] knowledge. It is nice to be the one helping them coordinate that.”
She explains that the project considers the concept of l’dor l’dor or generation to generation is a commitment to the future. Simone said, “I feel like our Jewish community is something that needs to exist…I kind of love the challenge of figuring out what is the best way for it to exist? And what will work for the next generation. And what can be forever lasting. And what do we need to say goodbye to. What needs to go?’”
“I have a vision of us being more connected. I have a vision of us being stronger. I have a vision of us blurring the lines more between all of our differences. Whether you are Reform, or Orthodox, or Conservative… or married with children, or single, or aging, I have a vision of all of those lines being merged and us being a strong core community. How to actually get there? I think we are on the right track with Shabbat San Diego, but you don’t really know until you try.”
And through maintaining a strong center, “I would love to somehow have that strong core community that we attract people…If we could truly build a happy inclusive community, we are going to attract everybody,” Simone said. Α