The #ShabbatChallenge

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By Leah Eichler

It started as a TikTok and snowballed from there.

In the original post, six 13-year-old girls from Shaliach, a Jewish sleepover camp in Northern Ontario, danced in unison to Lizzo’s It’s About Damn Time. Then, after 30 seconds, one of them announced, “Tick Tock, it’s Shabbat o’clock!” The other quickly girls shut off the music, turned off the lights and huddled together around two lit candles, covering their eyes with their hands. At the end, they yelled “Shabbat Shalom, y’all,” a nod to one of the girls, Minna, who makes the trek every year from Ann Arbor, Michigan to the camp in Sudbury.

Delighted to be the centre of attention, Minna responded, “We want Moshiach now!” Her line appeared to be off script and the video cut to the end abruptly after.  In the caption, they dared their entire camp to observe the rules of the Sabbath for a whole day, a culmination of their Ruach, or Spirit Week, dubbing it the #ShabbatChallenge. The entire video ran for only 60 seconds.

Camp Shaliach took the bite, although it wasn’t a huge stretch to get everyone to observe the Sabbath. While technically secular, the camp already made a to-do about lighting candles on Friday nights, blessing the challah and the grape juice before the head staff led the camp in the Sabbath Song from Fiddler on the Roof.

The camp merely added in a few technicalities for this particular Friday evening into Saturday; everyone shut off their phones, the lights stayed on (or off) and no one drove to town. The kitchen staff left large crockpots filled with oatmeal for breakfast and chili for lunch on a low simmer. Most campers spent the day relaxing by the lake or napping in their cabins, without any supervision or programming. Everyone agreed: it was the best day at camp, ever.

The #ShabbatChallenge was such a hit on TikTok that, by the following weekend, competing Jewish summer camps joined in on the fun, coming up with similar videos but in unusual locations, on a dock, in a canoe, sometimes with a curious dog or horse in the background. By the end of the summer, it spread to kids back in the cities, who found even more creative venues, on a roof, in a bus and even at the CN Tower.

The video always relied on Lizzo’s lyrics and after “it’s about damn time,” was lip-synced, it segued into some act of receiving the Sabbath.  Some signed off, saying “Shabbat Shalom, ya’ll,” before shutting off a light. A few of the more devout teens, finding themselves suddenly cool, added the We want the Moshiach now bit, with an aspirational hashtag, such as #worldpeace or #endhunger. The understanding was that after the video was published, the poster would adhere to the basic rules of the Sabbath: no technology, no working, nothing that can light a fire. For many, it didn’t even come across as religious, merely a way to shut off for a bit.

The synagogues began to take notice and the more tech-savvy ones started to leverage the trend. After experiencing decades of declining memberships, they promoted weekend slumber parties in their dusty ballrooms that used to host extravagant Bar Mitzvahs. “Come TikTok with us,” they offered in a cringey-yet endearing way. Surprisingly the teenagers ate it up. Even non-Jewish kids asked to join and were eagerly welcomed.

Sure enough, the haters moved in, offering competing TikToks referencing Hitler and Kanye saying “about damn time” these Jews went away, but they often fell flat, especially after the majority of celebrities embraced the trend. Lizzo’s song became the official anthem of Shabbat after she sang her own lyrics in a #ShabbatChallenge post. The Kardashians flashed their Shabbat candles on Instagram. Drake dropped a new song, which included a hip hop tribute to the blessing of the wine. The official video included 30 seconds from his own Bar Mitzvah.

When the Evangelical Christians embraced the trend, offering free flights to Israel and handing out Sabbath candles next to the Lubavitchers, some of the liberals started to worry. “This good will won’t last for long,” they said in quiet tones behind closed doors. “Eventually, it’s bound to go sour.”

How wrong they were.  By November, mental health advocates jumped on the trend, with their own hashtag. Despite its social media origin story, experts credited the #ShabbatChallenge with encouraging teens to turn off their phones more often and behave more politely while they were on. Cyberbullying dropped; the bullies didn’t go away but their audience did, removing the necessary oxygen to spread their vitriol. Suicide rates dropped to the lowest level in years.

By December, environmentalists began noticing a positive impact. Emissions were down 3 percent compared to the same time last year. There were visibly fewer cars on the road on the weekends in major cities not only in North America but Western Europe. Stores began closing for the weekends, putting up “Shabbat Shalom” signs in their windows, while promoting it as an environmental and mental health break for their staff. Consumers ate up the gesture and accommodated by shopping during a store’s limited business hours. The most enticing stores, it turned out, were barely open at all.

Wild animals, as if sensing the easing tension, began to make more appearances in metropolitan centres. Foxes set up dens in bus shelters in downtown Toronto. Cars waited patiently while rabbits hopped across major streets in Seattle. Sharks circled around the sea lions in the San Francisco Bay and appeared to perform dolphin-like hijinks for the tourists. A toddler reached over the pier to touch one, much to his parents’ distress, but it approached slowly and nuzzled him like a puppy.

Despite the winter weather, which normally leads to an increase in viruses and respiratory infections, hospitals began to be less crowded. The general goodwill so pervasive in major cities now extended to drivers, who in turn became more polite, causing fewer accidents. Cardiologists observed fewer heart attacks and studies were launched to determine if the reduction in stress could be seen as a contributing factor.

Another study attributed the decrease in cardiovascular events to improved diets. The slower pace of life led more people to eat more consciously and avoid animal by products, now that there were so many cute critters roaming around the streets. The surplus of pigs that no one wanted to kill or eat led to then being adopted, with city bylaws evolving to view them as pets. The homeless were regularly invited into people’s homes for dinner, which lessened the need for food banks. Everyone checked in on their neighbour.

As the #ShabbatChallenge evolved across Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa to include a #JummahChallenge and #SundayChallenge other strange events began to happen: in Myanmar, the National Unity Government and the junta jointly declared an end to the civil war that has ravaged the country for almost 75 years. The conflict in Somalia followed. So few followed the conflict in the Western hemisphere that at first, no one made the connection. A sudden peace treaty between Russia and Ukraine began to get people talking.

The #ShabbatChallenge, and its sister challenges became so ingrained that TikToks were no longer necessary.  In warmer climates, neighbourhoods lit candles together, blessed the challah and wine, and went home to rest. In colder regions, the lights could be seen to go out in entire blocks at a time. Zemirot or hymns could be heard coming from homes by passers-by out for their evening walk their dogs and pigs. Cities changed the traffic lights to flash periodically from Friday morning to Sunday night, since so few drivers appeared on the road.

At grocery stores, movies theatres and offices, the consensus appeared to be that this was not a religious phenomenon, but a global movement, with most agreeing that we have all done too much. Time to take it down notch or three and take care of the world we’ve been placed to live in.

The biggest shock came when Israeli soldiers began taking down the checkpoints between Israel and the Gaza strip. During a special Knesset session, leaders of both governments announced an immediate one state solution, confiscating all weaponry. On the news, one minister being interviewed began to cry. “Why didn’t we think of this before,” he asked. The female newscaster replied kindly. “But we did.”

It was Minna, back in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who first reluctantly suggested that perhaps, the time of the Messiah has arrived. Mystics and scholars of all faiths began congregating outside of her home, waiting for her to explain the global phenomenon. After all, she was the one who demanded the Messiah’s return in the original TikTok. They finally managed to speak with her, as her parents packed her duffel bags in the car, taking her to the airport on her way back to summer camp.

“Minna, Minna,” they yelled. “Do you think you summoned the Messiah? Are you pure enough that he finally decided to mark his return when you called him?”

“Me? Summon the Messiah?” she replied, blowing a bubble in her gum and shrugging. “Look around, maybe he was here all along. You were all just too busy to see him.”

The idea that the world finally arrived in Messianic times spread like wildfire across the globe. Countries doubled down on their good deeds, taking care of their poor and needy, unsure if a real person would gallop through their streets on a donkey or if a spiritual presence would blow through, like a cloud. Newspaper headlines were filled with stories of evidence, and frankly there was nothing else to talk about. People were happy. But for some, that made them uncomfortable.

Back in Sudbury, a small group of locals began to grumble about signs touting the city as the birthplace of the Messianic era. “What nonsense,” one woman said as she checked out her groceries. “What was wrong with the way things were before?”

“It hasn’t been all bad,” the cashier replied, inspecting the perfect fruit that consistently appeared from the local farms and placed them gently in a re-usable bag. “My mom’s cancer went into remission, and didn’t a whole bunch of countries stop fighting each other?”

“That could have happened, anyway,” the woman huffed on the way to her car.

That night a small group of about 12 people decided to congregate at a local church. They grumbled about the new world and reminisced about how nice it was, before all these scary changes.

“I know!” one yelled. “Let’s start turning on lights tonight.” It was Friday. They laughed at the prank, but a few kids took it seriously, knocking on doors and daring each other to flick the lights on and off in protest. They drove their parents run down vehicles up and down the street, skidding into figure eights. One kid ended up in hospital and died. It was the first death from a car accident in the city that year. After the Sabbath, when the TV crew arrived at the funeral, and asked the boy’s parents if they thought his flagrant disregard for the new world order caused his death, his father became enraged, pushing the newscaster to the ground, breaking her arm.

“A car killed my son, you bitch. Not some stupid ghost story.”

Things quickly unravelled from there. Experts labelled the feeling of euphoria over the past year an example of a mass psychosis. Accidents returned, so did hunger. The wars that ended only a few months earlier started up again with increased fervor. It even launched a few new ones.

On the last Shabbat at camp, the girls in Minna’s cabin sat around their candles in the dark, with blankets over their shoulders, singing zemirot.

“Hey, do you think it would help if we did another TikTok?” one girl asked.

The light reflected on Minna’s face, illuminating her, reminding all the others how much they loved her.

“I don’t think so,” she replied as the final candle blew out. “The world isn’t ready.”












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