145,000 Israelis Embrace New Year with Joy, Meaning and Unity
OTS’s Yachad Program for Jewish Identity brought the beauty of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah to more than 145,000 Israelis this year through their annual “Holidays are for Everyone” initiative, designed to ensure that Jewish traditions are accessible and meaningful for all Jews.
Yachad’s traditional “Shofar BaPark – Shofar in the Park” project has partnered with the Tzohar organization for the third consecutive year, in order to bring the excitement to even greater numbers of people. The result: more than 45,000 participants flocked to the program, which was held in 250 parks, public spaces and community centers across Israel.
“The fact that so many people were already waiting in the park when we arrived says a lot about the thirst amongst Israelis who wouldn’t attend a synagogue to nonetheless feel a connection to the holiday,” said Eliahu Galil, our Yachad coordinator in Maaleh Yosef. He joked, “Living along the Lebanese border, we often hear the Muezzin (Muslim call to prayer); on Rosh Hashana the citizens of Lebanon could definitely hear us!”
In addition to shofar blowing, “Shofar in the Park” events also include study sessions, stories, singing, dancing, and activities for children. “For the first time, I felt a sense of belonging,” said Bitya Maman, from Herzlia. “The event gave us an opportunity to do more than just listen. We sang, we touched the shofar… we were active participants in everything. And that felt really good.”
A Sense of Connection
The Rosh Hashana events were followed by “Yom Kippur for Everyone” – also run in partnership with Tzohar this year. Composed of abridged prayers, singing, reflections and group discussion, the free services drew 50,000 secular, alienated or unaffiliated Israelis to 350 community centers and public parks from Eilat in Israel’s south to Katzrin in the Golan Heights.
Twenty-eight year old Dana of Tel-Aviv told Yachad coordinator Uri Weill, “I always thought Yom Kippur was only about negatives; not eating, not drinking, not having fun. It was refreshing to learn about the positive side of the holiday, which can really speak to all of us.”
“This was such a meaningful experience,” enthused 19-year-old Ortal of Hod Hasharon, who was attending the first Yom Kippur service of her life. “The feeling of togetherness and unity was very spiritual.”
Ortal’s mother, Tzippy, explained: “I grew up in a traditional home, but I gave up on religion years ago. Recently, I’ve been feeling bad that my children are completely unaware of their heritage… it’s just not an important part of their lives. We all discussed it and we thought we’d give the Yachad event a try. And honestly, until today I didn’t even realize how much I missed that sense of connection,” she said.
Ortal agreed, “It’s important for children to know where they come from,” she said. “You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that you’re part of something much larger which could provide you with a sense of meaning and pride.”
Familiarity with Tradition
One of the greatest sights in Israel begins immediately at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, when people across the country begin constructing their sukkah. The Yachad coordinators harnessed the momentum by bringing their communities together for the building of big, bright and welcoming communal sukkot.
“There were many pluses from the communal sukkah project,” notes Yachad’s Ashkelon coordinator, Ilan Ivgi. “We learned about sukkot together, and the reason we build the booths. In addition to gaining an understanding of the traditional aspect, they also gained an appreciation of what is involved in building a community,” he said. “The teens showed great teamwork, and it gave them a real sense of ownership over something Jewish.”
In addition to the communal sukkah, many facilitators across the country visited local daycare facilities in the days leading up to the festival, four species in hand. Hundreds of children– and their teachers – were thus given an opportunity to wave a lulav, touch a myrtle, and smell the sweet citrus smell of the etrog. “I came to pick up my son Tom and I was overcome with emotion,” said Miri Ottolonghi of Petach Tikva. “I remember my grandfather used to have the four species and it brought back so many warm memories. Now my son will also be familiar with these traditional items in a way I couldn’t have taught him.”
One People with One Torah
With the conclusion of Sukkot, Yachad facilitators organized Hakafot Shniyot in community centers and public parks all over the country, accompanied by live music and refreshments, in an effort to engage those Israelis who would not normally attend (or even be aware of) the event taking place in their local synagogue. Bands cranked up the volume and gave hundreds of unaffiliated, alienated or simply curious secular Jews all over the country an opportunity to celebrate as “one people with one Torah.”
“Hakafot Shniyot is a great communal event in every sense of the phrase, with representatives of every stream, gender, age and ethnicity,” notes Givat Massuah Yachad coordinator, Racheli Semo. “We made sure that the Torah could be held by everyone who wanted – to show all the participants that the Torah belongs to them too. When we offered the scrolls, specifically, to secular people who had not spent the previous day in synagogue, the pride and happiness were clearly etched on their faces,” she says.
“This time of year is bursting with festivals, fasts and intermediary holidays and thus holds the potential to inspire thousands of secular Israeli Jews who are searching for meaning,” explains Yachad’s Educational Director, Yigal Klein. “Beyond our flagship Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur programs, our coordinators reached approximately 50,000 Israelis through selichot tours and activities surrounding Sukkot and Simchat Torah — all run through Yachad’s ongoing partnership with the Israeli community centers,” he relates.
Perhaps the entire period of Yachad programming is best summarized by Tomer Menachem, 28, of Beersheva: “This was my first truly Jewish experience which wasn’t marred by coercion or bad feelings,” he said. “I truly feel connected, for the first time in my life.”