When Sasha Liknaitzky-Drutz and David Drutz of Toronto held their first soup-to-nuts Shabbat on Dec. 22, the guest of honor was 6,000 miles away.
Now in their second year of marriage, the couple had been to many a Shabbat meal, but as for keeping the entire thing, “we’d just never done it,” said Sasha.
Nor did they have any immediate plans to do so until they heard that by simply observing the day fully, they could step in for a soldier on active duty in the Israel Defense Forces who normally keeps it but currently cannot.
That’s exactly what Shabbat 4 Soldiers is designed to do.
The program’s seeds were planted last November, a month after Hamas’ Simchat Torah massacre on Oct. 7. That’s when Rabbis Tzvi Sytner and Simcha Tolwin, on a support mission to Israel, began asking the soldiers they met, “What can we outside of Israel do for you?”
“We kept hearing the same answers,” said Sytner: “Pray for us, do a mitzvah for us.”
“So we thought, wait, what if we pair up a soldier who normally keeps Shabbat but can’t with someone who doesn’t normally keep Shabbat but can?” he said.
“What if they keep it for him?”
Within days of the two Aish HaTorah rabbis returning home to their respective communities — Sytner to Toronto and Tolwin to Detroit — the seeds of Shabbat 4 Soldiers were already germinating.
Within its first month, 85 households have kept Shabbat for the first time, and more Shabbat first-timers are being matched with more soldiers each week.
When the Drutz couple visited the website to select the soldier for whom to observe Shabbat, “we both felt so drawn to Baruch,” said David.
“We liked that he has a wife and little kids at home, and we felt a connection to him.” (Turns out both he and Sasha have families from South Africa).
The chicken cacciatore and carrot kugel done, the guests — family, friends and one man they’d just met at a Chanukah party — invited,the timers set and the dishes arranged on a white tablecloth, they were ready. From the moment they lit the Shabbat candles to the time they extinguished the Havdalah candle, they stayed true to the day.
“We’d been one step away from it, but we weren’t quite there,” said Sasha. “Now we had a reason to actually do the whole thing.”
So in the video they sent to Baruch afterwards, David said, “It was much more special that we were doing this for you.” Sasha added, “We hope that you’re staying safe and that this Shabbat brought you comfort and warmth in the way that you would have if you were able to keep it yourself. Thank you for everything you’re doing for us.”
“They’ve all taken on doing Shabbat with all the bells and whistles — the challah and the wine, the good food and the 25-hour vacation from the three C’s: cell phone, car and computer,” said Tolwin. “And they’re doing it for the soldiers who normally keep Shabbat but can’t now.”
Which also describes the motivation of Michael Tweyman of Toronto.
“I believe in the idea of one nation and one heart, that the Jewish people are united wherever we are, and this gives us a chance to show the soldiers that we are with them,” said Tweyman, who managed to get through his “phone withdrawal” (that was the only hard part, he said) for a full Shabbat immersion.
“I think wherever we were holding Jewishly before Oct. 7, we can each do a little bit more, each go a little bit higher with our soldiers in mind,” added Tweyman.
He was in Israel at the beginning of the war, seizing every opportunity to help, from preparing soldiers’ sandwiches to visiting the wounded in the hospital.
First-timers Randy and Lauren Lesson from Detroit took on Shabbat 4 Soldier Steve Gar, whom they’d heard speak on two trips to Israel and a third time at home.
“We kept Shabbat in your honor, we really enjoyed it, and we plan on doing it again next week and the next week and the next week,” Lauren told Gar in their post-Shabbat video.
“Thank you for inspiring us and we hope you stay safe and healthy.”
For Gar, who learned that both the Lessons and his friend Jeff Singer in Los Angeles were keeping Shabbat for him for the first time, “knowing I’m not able to be in shul with my family or wear my Shabbat clothes and eat the delicious Shabbos food — but that Jews thousands of miles away were lighting their candles, blessing their children and sitting down to a nice Shabbat meal — enjoying the full experience for the first time because of what we’re going through here, it made me feel the Shabbat wasn’t wasted.”
Reports from the Shabbat first-timers are beginning to come in.
“It was lively and loud,” said David Drutz. “All these people who’d never met until that night really got along. We’re definitely planning on doing it again.”
For Detroit’s Randy Lesson, “the best part was turning off all our electronics and really being present — it was a true gift. No matter how big a deal it seems at first, after you really do Shabbat, it just comes naturally.”
It’s a gift the two founding rabbis want to share broadly. “Eighty-five is a good start, but let’s get into the thousands of Jews who want to keep a Shabbat for our soldiers,” said Sytner. “What better way to create achdus — unity — than the coming together of Jews around our Shabbat, the religious and the nonreligious, the Israelis and the Diaspora Jews. What a beautiful way to stand strong together.”
In the video he sent back, Baruch said that “we aren’t really able to celebrate Shabbat in Gaza, but seeing your video was so emotional. I hope you guys got as much out of it as I did just knowing you’re doing it for me.”
Such an act “shows that we as a people can share not just pain but also joy,” said Gar.
“And I don’t know of a more joyous or more spiritual time than Shabbat. We need both the boots on the ground and the blessing from above to win. The Maccabees knew that this was the only way to defeat the greatest superpower of the day. I believe when Jews begin to keep Shabbat it, too, can harness G-d’s blessing, which could turn the tide of this war, to move things in Heaven so we win on every front, the physical and the spiritual.”