Home > Uncategorized > Making Israel’s Yom Kippur universal

Making Israel’s Yom Kippur universal

September 13, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Nachman Rosenberg

LOD, Israel — There’s a commonly held belief that one of the main reasons why Israel’s enemies chose Yom Kippur to launch their attack in October of 1973 was that most of the country would have been in synagogue and it would take that much longer for the reserves to be called up. 

The reality is that unlike the Diaspora where this day is revered as one of communal prayer, many secular Israelis simply stay home on this holiest of days.  Data shocking to some display that the day before Yom Kippur used to have the highest number of movie rentals across Israel of any day of the year.

Contrary to a common misconception, the decision to abstain from actual participation in high-holiday services is not driven by apathy or secularism.  In fact the vast majority of Israeli Jews fast on Yom Kippur and do identify with the day’s solemnity and themes of repentance and judgment.

A leading reason why they stay home is that they are unable to find a house of worship where they can feel comfortable.  As hard as it might be to believe that a Jew in the Jewish State can’t find a good shul / synagogue in which to daven, this is the reality. 

While “traditional” houses of prayer come in every shape and stripe, catering to the panoply of origins that makes up Israel’s Jewish community, if you classify yourself as secular every other day of the year, finding this comfort zone on Yom Kippur can be highly frustrating. As such many simply throw up their hands and choose to commemorate the date at home rather than be forced to feel like a fish out of water.

Given that the very large percentage of Israel’s Jews is in fact secular, yet strives for some sort of accommodation on Yom Kippur, such a situation is untenable.

In recent years, an organization of rabbis called Tzohar, committed to bridging the ever widening gap between secular and religious began to pursue a real solution.

While many well-meaning outreach organizations act just as their name indicates by reaching out to bring fellows Jews into these “traditional” settings, this approach simply does not relate to the interests of many secular Israeli Jews. 

Rather than looking for any awakening or return to traditional practice, on Yom Kippur these already spiritual Jews are only in search of an outlet to convey their individual forms of spirituality.

For this reason Tzohar has developed a global network of close to 200 prayer services in community centers, sports facilities and public spaces specifically designed for Israel’s secular majority. Imbued with an appreciation for the unique sensibilities of this community, the service is neither designed to preach nor condescend.  It simply gives Israelis an environment of prayer where they can feel welcome and in sync with the holiness of the day.

The greatest evidence for the need for such an institution is borne out through the ever growing numbers of participants we see each year.  Founded in 1996, when the Tzohar rabbis were still unsure whether the secular community would trust anything that even felt like institutional religion, we were thrilled to quickly earn their trust. (Due to the success of these services, similar programming has been created for Purim, Shavuot and Israel’s Independence Day.)

This Yom Kippur, over 40,000 Israeli Jews will welcome the power that is Yom Kippur in these special prayer services.  Expressing their Judaism in a forum that is both in total context of Jewish tradition but respectful of the parishioner’s real emotions, we know it will be a high holiday that they will long remember. Most fundamentally these services will imbue a heightened love for Judaism and Jewish tradition that will last throughout the year.

As even the most casual observer of Israeli society will tell you, this is a nation with no shortage of inner division and conflict- on top of all the other external challenges that befall our beloved homeland.  There are no easy solutions to any of these problems.  But to even hope to overcome the social divide, we know we must feel the spiritual pains of all sectors of the population.

Throughout our history, Yom Kippur has been a constant reminder of our humility, and that regardless of our differences we are a united people. 

Across Israel this year, thousands more Jews, who might otherwise have passed the day in front of their television screens will be reminded as such. And in so doing their actions will give hope for a brighter future for our land, our religion and our people.

Nachman Rosenberg is the Executive Vice President of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization. To find out more about the Yom Kippur program and other efforts supported by the organization throughout the year visit www.tzohar.org.il

  1. arlene
    September 13, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    I wonder if the synagogues in Israel charge as much money as they do in the US. That contributes to why many people don’t go here. It costs too much!

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