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  • Writer's picturerabbijonathanf

Coming Together on Yom Kippur Under the Stars in the Center of Tel Aviv

The two renowned Chasidic masters, the brothers Rav Elimelech and Rav Zusha were rounded up with some of the simple folk they used to befriend as they were all accused of being thieves. After the afternoon in jail, R Elimelech realized it was time to pray Mincha, the afternoon service. R Zusha stopped him and pointed out that the latrine pail was sitting in the corner of the jail, and the smell was not so nice, so they could not pray. R Elimelech sat down, even more upset that they could not pray than that they were in jail. His brother said to him, don’t be so upset, don’t you realize that by not praying we are still serving the Almighty? We are doing his will by not praying in an unclean place. Realizing what he was saying, R Elimelech started smiling and laughing, got up, and started dancing. What a scene they made, the two brothers dancing in a circle, full of joy over serving the Almighty in whatever way they could.

Coronatimes call on us to reframe our lives and our service of the Almighty, and to adapt and adjust to the new circumstances. The most recent lockdown in Israel coincided with the oncoming of Yom Kippur this year. It was particularly challenging because the government did not announce their guidelines for prayer during the holidays until 60 hours before the holiday. And so with the limitation placed on praying indoors we had to serve the Almighty in ways that we are not accustomed to ordinarily. In Tel Aviv, our organization Tribe Tel Aviv, partnering with White City Shabbat and Torah Tech, all under the umbrella of Am Yisrael Foundation took the services to the public square, doing them in Kikar HaBima, Tel Aviv’s Lincoln Center. Yom Kippur itself is already an extraordinary experience in Tel Aviv, with the city shutting down completely to all traffic, and there is not one car to be seen. People take it to the streets in the evening after it cools off, with bicycles, skateboards, children’ strollers and walking down the tree lined avenues.

Our services at Kikar Habima for Kol Nidrei at the beginning of Yom Kippur, and Neila at the conclusion was set up with socially distanced chairs, pods of twenty with strings between them, masks mandatory, with about 120 people signed up for each service. During the day we ran an explanatory service for 40 participants. Kikar Habima also happens to be an evening gathering spot for families with young children because of the sunken play space in the middle of the square. As services started picking up steam an amazing thing happened. People walking by stopped to listen and participate. The families started to wander over with their children. Both young and old were looking to connect to Yom Kippur. And as the shofar was sounding to make the conclusion of Yom Kippur everyone in the entire square was silent listening to the climactic conclusion to Yom Kippur. And then right after people disbursed, and went back to enjoying the balmy end of summer evening. Some of the Tel Avivians came over thanking us for bringing Yom Kippur to the public square because otherwise, they told us, they would not have had the opportunity to hear the prayers and the Shofar. In total over 500 participants participated in all the services. And our own young olim participants were grateful because even if they had tried to find a synagogue, they were only accepting regular members. Next year even if the synagogues are fully open again, Kikar HaBima might be our location of choice to run services again. For a moment in time, everyone felt connected to each other, to Yom Kippur, to the Almighty and to every other Jew irregardless of their background.

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