Published in the Boston Jewish Advocate: In Tel Aviv, rediscovering Yom Kippur

This article was published in the Boston Jewish Advocate  in September 2012.

by Jill Weiner, Career Israel alumna

For nearly 20 years, Yom Kippur was always the same: Shabbat-type dinner, Kol Nidre services on Erev Yom Kippur, Shacharit in the morning, and the Book of Jonah and Ne’ilah before break-fast. A monotonous and solemn 26 hours of fasting and praying, hoping to be inscribed into the Book of Life.

It was not until I was in Israel that this experience changed for me. During my first time in Israel for the High Holidays, I was studying abroad at the University of Haifa. On Yom Kippur, I went to a synagogue overlooking the hills of Haifa. Right around sunset, a brilliant blue and red shimmered in the sky as father and son harmonized the prayers of Ne’illah. As the echo of their voices bounced off the walls, I sensed that the glowing light held more than the eye could see. Or, maybe I was just hallucinating from the lack of food.

The second time I was in Israel for the High Holidays, I was on Israel Experience’s Career-Israel, a five-month internship program that placed me in a pre-school with blind and vision impaired babies.

On the few weeks leading up to Yom Kippur, I lived in Tel Aviv, one of the most secular cities in Israel. Many stores, restaurants, and tourist attractions are all opened on Shabbat. Sheruts (small service buses) run 24 hours. Though families can be seen walking to synagogue on any given Saturday morning, it is more likely to find a family walking to the beach. The dorms where I resided were stationed smack in the middle of the city. I could walk to the shuk (outdoor market) or jump across the street to a coffee shop. Everything I needed was within a 10-minute walk.

Having grown up in Lexington and studied at a university located near farmland, I was excited to be in the city. The noise of the metropolis never disturbed me and I barely glanced at the crowded sidewalks and loud Israelis. Every morning, I heard conversations, ambulances, and laughing children right outside my window. Only once, during Yom Kippur, did this not transpire.

On this day, there were no stores open nor were any cars being driven. Complete silence captivated the city. As Kol Nidre services ended, a sea of white overtook the intersection of Dizengoff and King George. The crowd began singing in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in Tel Aviv. When Ne’ilah approached, the small one-room synagogue where I was praying quickly became too crowded. Congregants overflowed outside, standing and praying to G-d one last time.

Whether American, Russian or Israeli secular, religious or fervently Orthodox, everyone was turning towards G-d, chanting the songs of Ne’ilah. Everyone was having a heart-to-heart with G-d.

The chanting and harmonizing of the melody created more than just music. It created a community in which we were able to connect both to one another and to a higher being. The passion and fervor that flowed from the congregants’ hearts as we sang the somber Aveinu Malkenu made the hairs on my arms rise. And while I was cold from sitting beneath the air conditioning and the lack of food, these chills were something more soulful. G-d was here.

Tekiah Gadolah blasted from shofars across Tel Aviv, signaling the conclusion of Yom Kippur. The bustling city was now free from sin, rejuvenated for the coming year.

Career Israel alumna Jill Weiner is from Lexington and is currently working at a pre-school in Newton.

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