Each year, in the final moments of the Yom Kippur service, Jews around the world promise to return to the heart of the Jewish homeland in the coming year. Next year in Jerusalem, we say. And last year I kept that promise – Rosh Hashana in Tel Aviv, Yom Kippur in Jerusalem.
The trip was an interesting adventure, part of a three-week program – sponsored and coordinated by an organization called Sar-El – that had me working on an IDF base with other volunteers from around the world.
Certainly one of the highlights was the opportunity to attend several shuls, taking part in services that weren’t dramatically different from what I’ve experienced in the Land of Cotton. If my Hebrew was better, I imagine I could have closed my eyes and felt completely at home.
In fact, that’s one of the gifts of being a Conservative Jew. Smack in the middle of the theological give-and-take of Judaism, we’re reasonably comfortable sitting through the modernity of the Reform movement or the Torah-based beliefs of Orthodoxy.
On this trip I had the opportunity to experience both and the spiritual payoff at times was transcendent. I managed to attend services at four different synagogues – one in Tel Aviv and three in Jerusalem. Each was unique – one tiny and a bit gritty around the edges; another massive, filled with stained glass windows and known for its world-class choir. The other two could have easily been part of the suburban landscape of any American city. Go figure!
It was actually outside the shuls, before and during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that I came to appreciate the rich Jewish fabric of Israel and why it remains a beacon for Jews around the world.
On Erev Rosh Hashana, I spent much of the day walking around Tel Aviv, enjoying the metropolitan vibe of the place. The city spreads out along the Mediterranean, the beaches on this day filled with local residents and tourist.
Only minutes away, along the wide boulevards and streets – Dizengoff, King George, Frishman, Ben Yehuda – there was a bustling, festive mood in the air; businessmen and women, students, tourists and shoppers taking care of business. The place had the feel of New York, just busier and filled with more people.
At first I thought Tel Aviv was simply a happening place. But slowly it dawned on me that all the hubbub was a holiday thing, people picking up last minute items – flowers, food, and other such goodies – they might need before the city shut down for Yom Tov.
This was interesting and different. Life in the Land of Cotton pretty much continues unchanged during the Jewish High Holidays. As I learned over the next several hours, in Israel – yes, even in Tel Aviv, the secular heart of the country – life first slows to a manageable pace, then pretty much comes to a complete halt.
As night fell over the city and the Jewish New Year approached, there was an eerie calmness about the place – shops had closed and the streets were empty. A few tourists walked along the promenade, but virtually all the restaurants, bars, ice cream and novelty shops that line the Mediterranean were empty.
The following morning I could have ignored the sidewalk and strolled down the middle of Ben Yehuda Street on my way to Kehilat Sinai. Even though I had missed the introductory service, the small synagogue was only half full when I entered – and, no, I didn’t need a ticket!
By the time I took a break and made it back to my hotel, the Adiv, just a block or so from the Mediterranean, the city was showing signs of life again. Apparently, many Israelis sleep in on Rosh Hashana, then make their way to the beach. All those people not in shul had spent the morning with family and friends and by mid-afternoon were enjoying the good life offered up by this vibrant city.
A week later I was in Jerusalem, exploring the secrets of the Old City and preparing for Yom Kippur. By the time the sun set on the Day of Atonement, I had managed to attend three different synagogues, spending hours engaged with the life and death themes that fill this spiritually-rich time.
Did I mention I didn’t need a ticket at any of these shuls, including the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, a massive structure whose chazzan, Chaim Adler, is a cantorial rock star?
Simply being in the city, praying with Jews from Israel and, much like me, visitors from Jewish communities around the world, was special. But it was the previous evening that ultimately captured the uniqueness to be found in observing the High Holidays in Israel.
I had been invited by my rabbi’s sister, Orah Lipsky, to share the pre-fast meal with her and her husband, then attend Kol Nidre services at their shul, Kehilat Moreshet Avraham (KMA), in the southeast corner of the city.
The melancholy notes of Kol Nidre are no different in Israel then the Land of Cotton. The power of the service, at least for me, is taking part in an ancient ritual that plays out in the same fashion year after year, and being part of a community that shares the burden of collectively crying out to God that we have sinned.
The Day of Atonement spilled out over Jerusalem as we left the shul, the city shut down completely for this holiest of days. It so happens that KMA is just a block or so from the Tayellet, a promenade that offers a breathtaking view of the area, including the ancient Old City and surrounding neighborhoods. The same eerie calm that I had experienced a week earlier in Tel Aviv, now filled the City of David.
Orah’s husband, Shim, had picked me up earlier in the day, but I’d be walking back to my hotel, a 30-minute stroll that proved momentous. Shim mentioned in passing that Kol Nidre was also known in Israel as “The night of the Wheels.” I had no idea what he was talking about.
We said our goodbyes, wished one another an “easy fast” and I began my walk. After only a few moments, the empty streets began filling up with families, strolling along, enjoying the evening. Then I noticed the wheels. There were kids on bikes and skateboards, small wagons, skates and rollerblades. The somber tone of the night was momentarily broken by the youngsters, excited to have the roads of Jerusalem to themselves – at least for a day.
I continued on, having no problem finding my way back to the center of the city, mostly lost in thought, replaying and rethinking the events of the last few days. That’s when I heard singing.
At first I thought I was having problems with my hearing or I had just become a prophet and God was trying to tell me something. There was no mistaking, however, that the sound of singing was growing stronger with each step I took, now only a block or so away from my hotel – actually, the Agron Guesthouse, part of Israel’s Youth Hostel Association.
The mystery was solved when I crested the hill I was gamely trudging along and I spotted about 100 or so teens, all comfortably plopped down in a circle in the middle of the road, singing holidays songs. Most of them were also guests at the Agron, part of a year-long program sponsored by a Jewish youth organization in America.
Add to this festive mix several hundred congregants from The Great Synagogue, only a block away on King George Street, who were attracted by the music and stuck around to enjoy, and you have the makings of an only-in-Israel High Holiday happening.
The mini-concert was both joyous and melancholy. It was that iconic Zionist dream that is the stuff of legend – streets filled with Jewish kids singing Jewish songs in a land that is strong, free and theirs!
I stood quietly on the side of the road, filled with a sense of awe and delight that I was experiencing this perfect moment. Then I realized only one thing was missing.
I reached for my cell phone and surreptitiously attempted to call the lovely Miss Wendy back home in the Land of Cotton, wanting to share the special moment with her. But, alas, despite my best efforts I couldn’t manage to make the connection. Perhaps there was a cosmic hand at play; after all, it was Yom Tov!
I would reach her later and be able to relive the evening, at least for an instant, playing out the joy of finally, after six decades of life, keeping the simple promise many of us make annually on Yom Kippur – next year in Jerusalem. The words are easy to say. Turns out they are also easy to keep.
L’Shanah tovah Tikatevu. May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for a good year.