Journalist couple conducting a Shabbat symphony online

A single mother in El Cerrito makes the most of her cramped kitchen to cook a Shabbat meal for her two young children.

In the same city, a Russian immigrant family appears visibly moved as they engage in the simple acts of blessing Shabbat candles and wine.

Across the bay at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, employees break on a Friday afternoon to shmooze, eat challah and drink wine from Dixie cups.

Freelance journalists Laura Stein Turbow and Jason Turbow chronicle these and other local Shabbat stories in photos and essays on their Web site called "Symphony of Candles: Exploring the Global Jewish Sabbath."

The site — www.symphonyofcandles.com — aims to highlight both the universality and individuality of Shabbat expression, bringing into relief the words of philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel: "The seventh day is like a palace in time, with a kingdom for all. It is not a date, but an atmosphere."

With more than two-dozen photographs, the burgeoning project currently details seven Shabbat observances in Northern California, including one at the San Francisco senior apartments Menorah Park and another at Camp Tawonga in the Sierra foothills.

Eventually the Bay Area pair hopes to extend their site to document Shabbats as far away as Kenya, Mexico and Japan.

"It started off as a book idea" until a rabbi suggested they put it online, Stein Turbow said. "We hope some day Jewish day schools around the country and around the world will plug in to the site. We'd also love to have kids all over the world post their own Shabbat experiences."

Visitors to the site in its current incarnation will see Tawonga campers carefully primping for Shabbat, toddlers dancing to Shabbat songs and seniors debating the order of the Sabbath prayers.

"Seeing the diversity of Bay Area Sabbaths gives us the impression that doing this on a global scale is going to be incredible," said Turbow, a 29-year-old graduate of U.C. Santa Cruz who has written for the Oakland Tribune, Santa Cruz Sentinel, the online magazine Salon and the Jewish Bulletin.

He and his wife, who were married in August, came up with the Symphony of Candles while living and working in Crescent City, a California coastal town near the Oregon border. Celebrating Shabbat in a Masonic hall there, they got to thinking about the myriad ways Jews individualize the weekly observance.

"I remember thinking 'Jason's parents are in Palo Alto having Shabbat while my parents are in Des Moines [Iowa] having Shabbat,'" said Stein Turbow, 29, a self-employed photographer whose work as a journalist has appeared in the Des Moines Register and the Jewish Bulletin.

Once the couple envisioned documenting the global Shabbat experience, they contacted Jewish communities around the world, receiving enthusiastic invitations to make Shabbat visits. Currently, they are seeking funding for equipment, travel and lodging and Web site maintenance.

Already the recipients of several small donations, they are a finalist for a lead grant from the Covenant Foundation. "It would be a good amount to get started on, and it would get other funders attracted to support our project," Stein Turbow said. "Quite a few foundations have said they'll be interested once we get a lead gift."

Upon securing what they hope will be at least $400,000, they plan to hit the road with notepads and camera in tow, although it probably won't be for at least another six or seven months. To start with, they'll beat a path across North America; after that, the world awaits.

The pair knows that more observant communities will be opposed to having pictures taken on Shabbat. In such cases, they will photograph Shabbat preparation, such as shopping for Challah or preparing chicken, as well as related activities, such as Havdallah.

Stein and Stein Turbow plan to make their site a venue for exchanging e-mails and information. Links will be set up to other sites, related historically, culturally or by location. A database will contain facts on local cultures, detailing specialized vocabulary, songs, psalms and recipes.

Visitors to the site can already get some ideas for Shabbat cuisine.

"From Russia with Love," the story on the ElCerrito immigrant family, offers a recipe for a skillet dish, zpaekanka with matzah and spinach.

In "Sari's Story," single mom Sari Friedman offers her special recipe for chicken soup. The Menorah Park segment, titled "Eastern Accents," offers a easy-to-prepare Shabbat mix: jarred gefilte fish, jarred pickles, jarred olives and horseradish.

"We're not trying to tell people how to do Shabbat, but we will certainly point them toward the 'best of,'" Stein Turbow said.

Several Jewish organizations have already lined up behind Symphony of Candles. The Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay is serving as the project's fiscal agent, meaning the organization will act as a conduit for funding.

Staff from Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito will be giving input on how to make the site a pedagogic tool. The American Joint Distribution Committee will help the pair set up an itinerary.

"We're looking for any kind of community advice and input we can get," Stein stressed.

That includes ideas on communities and individuals with Shabbat stories to tell. Stein and Turbow have unearthed a number of potential treasures, including a Brooklyn nursing home largely populated by Sephardic Jews. They've also heard that Shabbat is celebrated at Camden Yard, a baseball stadium in Baltimore.

A far cry from Menorah Park. But that's exactly the point.

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.