Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv is a remarkable experience. You would think that I would say ‘Yom Kippur in Jerusalem is a remarkable experience’, and it probably is. However that is to be expected, Jerusalem being the religious center of Israel and the Jewish people. But Tel Aviv is possibly more remarkable because the experience was so unexpected. I had heard that Tel Aviv shuts down on Yom Kippur, and that everyone bikes around on the holiday, and those things are true. On Shabbat in Tel Aviv most establishments shut down, retail stores, service providers, even many restaurants, but several restaurants and grocery stores open. Traffic is lighter, but you do see some people do see some people driving around. On Yom Kippur, there were no cars to be seen. I do not mean one driving by every few minutes, I mean no cars at all.
When our organization, Tribe Tel Aviv, was planning to run Yom Kippur services in Tel Aviv, I was looking forward to the opportunity to experience Tel Aviv go quiet, but I had no idea that this would be a total shut-down. Before services I went for an early morning walk by the beach. There was a pervasive tranquility, and the usual elderly Russians out on the beach taking a dip at the crack of dawn seemed to be missing. The only people out besides those like me taking an early morning stroll and a few random joggers, and there was a group of Asian workers who were trying to fish with a net off the breakwater. They were probably not informed, because other non-Jews have told me they would not drive on Yom Kippur out of respect. There were no cars on the beach drive the whole time I was out, but I attributed that to the early hour. However during the break in the services when I took a walk I saw the same experience. Rabbi Yakov and Lori Palatnik, our guest speakers went walking for an hour in the center of town, on Dizengoff Square, Ben Yehuda Street, and also reported that there were no cars no whole time that they were walking around.
Tel Aviv is usually identified as the epicenter of secular Israel, and there is a strong movement to get religion out of the public sphere. So why would it be that the city is so completely shut down on Yom Kippur? My wife Shifra works with Israelis, who self-identify as secular. When she asked them what they did on Yom Kippur, most of them honestly answered that they were home watching television. But, they said, of course we were fasting, we would never think of eating on Yom Kippur. I used to think that it would be better if Jews came to synagogue on Simhat Torah, the day of singing and dancing over the Torah, or Purim, a festive masquerade party, because those days show the joyous and happy side of Judaism. So what is it that draws Jews to Yom Kippur, why is that the day more than any other that people are in synagogue, that they are not working or driving, or are even fasting?
Even though the media conditions us to think that we just want to have fun in life, and that we live from weekend to weekend, and vacation to vacation, and that the goal of life is daiquiris by the pool, I believe that people really do want something more. That something more is to have meaning in our lives. This can take many forms, it can mean a feeling of belonging, a feeling of making a difference in others’ lives and in the world. For some belonging to a sports team by being a fan and going to games serves that purpose, but it is an illusory meaning. In Israel, where much more is demanded of people, paying high taxes to cover the defense budget, and sending one’s kids to the army the feeling of meaning and purpose needs to be much stronger. When we fast, or desist from driving on Yom Kippur, by giving up something for a greater purpose, the people are showing that this greater purpose of connection to the Jewish people and to G-d means a lot to them. Giving of oneself is hard, but it is also very fulfilling and we feel good about it afterwards. This is the power of Yom Kippur. The Torah calls it Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. On Yom Kippur we say the famous ‘Natanah Tokef’ prayer about our destiny being determined for the coming year. The translation of the opening line is “Let us recognize the power of the sanctity of the day, for it is awesome and overwhelming.” There is a power to Yom Kippur that makes the experience of the day something that people respond to, that we yearn for. It brings us back to the essentials of life. It strips our lives down to the basics, praying for health, and sustenance for the coming year, for our beloved ones, and how we can be better. And even if a person is not in synagogue or even fasting, we see that connecting to the day for so many is a way to connect to those essential elements of our lives.
Polls show that on Yom Kippur 60% of the Jews in Israel are fasting, like my wife’s co-workers, which is extraordinary. But in Tel Aviv it goes way beyond that, it seems 100% are observing Yom Kippur in some manner. The Chasidic Rabbis talk about the idea of the pintele yid, that deep inside every Jewish person is an essence which is yearning to connect to something greater. Over the day of Yom Kippur our organization, Tribe Tel Aviv, had over 200 participants come through our doors, many of them olim who relocated to Israel from abroad, for free Anglo-friendly explanatory services. Many of them might not have otherwise been at services. Below is the singing of Hatikvah at the conclusion. After the climactic moment of the blowing of shofar, and dancing to ‘Next year in Jerusalem’, there was a feeling of elation and accomplishment in the room that is only felt on Yom Kippur. We had the opportunity to be part of the astonishing phenomenon of Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv, and next year I invite you to join us and to see for yourselves the power of the Jewish people returning to our land and to our heritage.