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  • Writer's picturerabbijonathanf

Tears In Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur

Updated: Jan 7

Yom Kippur at Tribe Tel Aviv we found ourselves in the center of the turmoil that has been embroiling the country. It played out on the streets of Tel Aviv.

Our plan was to run Yom Kippur services outdoors as we had done the past three years at Kikar Habima, a service which draws mostly our community of young olim from all over the world, but also some older folks, native Israelis, curious non-Jews and people just walking by. Many who are not regular synagogue-goers are drawn by the opportunity to have English-friendly services with explanations to make the experience meaningful for them. It was a beautiful day, with the late afternoon sun throwing its end of summer rays across the plaza. The afternoon heat was starting to dissipate. We set up chairs on two sides of a divider, as we had always done, and as Jews have prayed for thousands of years.

As we began Kol Nidrei, the crowd grew to over one hundred people, with others passing by coming over to join or listen. After I spoke for 15-20 minutes about the 50th year since the Yom Kippur war, we started the evening service. We began to notice comments being made, people starting to cat call us. We began to understand that separate seating services had been forbidden, a ruling of the Tel Aviv Municipal council given just days prior and reinforced by the Supreme Court that same day, unbeknownst to us. Someone dragged the divider away, and we continued, but the disrupters continued to call out at us. I then responded to one of the demonstrators that we no longer had a divider or separate services (there are usually some women in the men’s section or vice versa), but that did not appease them. The shouting became louder, and were becoming more and more disruptive. Women were placing themselves in the men’s section, and I stayed calm, instructed our staff and participants not to engage, and continued the service.

When protesters wheeled their bikes into the middle of the services, and started blowing whistles and yelling over my prayer, I realized it was not viable to continue. We stopped prayer and formed a circle to engage in discussion and Torah study. Our participants were extremely upset with some of the women being brought to tears. They did not understand how Jews could disrupt other Jews in prayer on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year – and in Israel in the middle of Tel Aviv, no less. They did not understand how there could be so much anger and hatred, to the point that the police had to move closer to make sure the demonstrators did not become more aggressive. Some were standing disturbingly close to our staff and community members, and the police asked them to move back. The police commendably remained neutral and helped keep the calm.

The demonstrators were satisfied that they had disrupted us, but realizing they had nothing more to do, they still did not leave and stood by ominously. I invited some of them to come sit down so we could discuss things in a calm way, but they refused to do so. They said they did not want to talk. When I asked them if they were open-minded, they said no and repeated that they did not want us here. When they asked why we were here, I told them we have been here for the past three years and are continuing our prayer which was open to all. We are here because this is our city and our country. It was so sad to see the anger and the animosity from fellow Jews over our prayers, and to see their refusal to try to see if there was any room to share perspectives or even find a way to reconcile.

They felt we were praying in public to incite them, or “poke them in their eye.” I assured them we only wanted to pray as we had always done, that there had never been any objections in the past, and that I did not know about the new ruling. Even if I had though, I still would have exercised what has become an acceptable form of expression in Israel – civil disobedience in the face of what one considers a miscarriage of justice. Others passing by encouragingly told us that they thought what the protesters had done was wrong, and that we should be allowed to pray as we wished. Even some who agreed with the demonstrators clearly saw that their behavior and their anger on Yom Kippur had crossed a line.

The injustice and absurdity of the situation was accentuated at Neila, the winding down of Yom Kippur Monday afternoon, when we gathered to study on the square (we had moved our prayer to a synagogue a few blocks away). A conservative Rabbi (whom I know) appeared saying that he had been asked to lead a mixed service at Kikar HaBima, undoubtedly organized right before Yom Kippur when people realized that the large numbers of people who used to join our services for Neila and the final shofar blowing would have nowhere to go. He sympathized with our plight and told us he believed we should have the right to pray as we wish. He asked me about the chairs that were stacked nearby, and I told him we had brought them there. When he asked me if he could use them, I gladly agreed, telling him people can pray as they wished.

Our tears on Yom Kippur were mixed with tears over the rupture of our people. We pray that our Jewish nation should find a way to go forward together even with our differences, and that angry confrontation should be replaced with discussion and brotherly love, and that we should all make efforts to understand each other and find ways to co-exist. That is the only way forward for the Jewish people and the future of the State of Israel.

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