Introducing Jews to Judaism
Many Jewish Israelis identify as secular and yet, they are thirsty for a sense of meaning and connection. The Yachad Program for Jewish Identity strives to quench this thirst by engaging such Israelis in an active quest to explore and celebrate their heritage in an accepting, non-coercive and warm environment.
Empowerment; belonging, warmth; inspirational; togetherness: these are just some of the words used by participants to describe the activities OTS’s Yachad Program for Jewish Identity coodinators ran during the holiday-filled Hebrew month of Tishrei. They aptly convey the story of the Yachad Program, in which even the most secular Israelis are excited to embrace their Jewish heritage, as long as it is presented in a warm, non-coercive setting and characterized by meaning and joy.
Selichot Under the Stars
During the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, there is an exciting ritual that has become standard in religious schools across the country: Siyurei Selichot, or late-night walking tours in the spirit of the selichot penitential prayers traditionally recited during the time period. Yachad coordinators have tailored the Siyurei Selichot model to their own communities, bringing more than 20 groups of secular Israelis to the old cities of Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias, Old Jaffa and other sites of spiritual significance, touring historical sites with inspirational texts in hand, engaging in discussions under the stars on the significance of repentance in their personal lives, as well as its implications on a communal level.
Other Yachad coordinators organized local selichot events with a twist; in Hod Hasharon, for example, more than 1,000 people, including the city’s mayor, enjoyed a melodious evening at which some of the selichot were given a modern indie-rock and hip hop flair. “It was a real eye-opening experience” said resident Meir Kaminsky. “I always thought of prayer as something old and static, but this evening made me realized that prayer is something evolving, which can be relevant even to me.”
The Call of the Shofar
Yachad facilitators ran pre-holiday programs in hospitals, schools and retirement homes, after-school programs, giving hundreds of Israelis an opportunity to dip an apple in honey, touch a shofar and literally “feel” their heritage. Then, during the two days of Rosh Hashana, Yachad ran its trademark “Shofar in the Park” initiative which, as its name suggests, takes the shofar experience out of the intimidating atmosphere of the synagogue and into the welcoming environment of the public realm.
For the fourth year in a row, the Shofar in the Park program welcomed the partnership of the Tzohar Rabbinic Organization, whose volunteer shofar-blowers helped enable the project to take place in 250 locations across Israel, from Moshav Shtula near the Lebanese border, all the way south to Eilat. By blowing the shofar, singing, distributing sweets and providing accompanying programming in hotspots like the beach in Rishon LeZion, Park Hayarkon in Tel Aviv or Katzrin’s Museum of Antiquities, Yachad coordinators and other volunteers made Rosh Hashana accessible and meaningful for approximately 45,000 Israelis.
“We held Shofar in the Park events in four different parks around the city this year,” relates Elia Amsalem, Yachad’s Coordinator in Beit Shean. “But this year we took it to another level; we split participants into groups , armed them with a shofar, and directed them to homes of nearby senior citizens to visit, blow shofar, and wish them a happy and sweet New Year,” she reports.
“Just as Judaism belongs to us all, so too must the holidays of Tishrei belong to everyone,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, President and Rosh HaYeshiva of OTS. “It’s important that each and every Jew feel connected to the history, heritage and symbols of the Jewish people – each person in his or her way, out of an understanding that the differences between us do not change the fact that we are all one nation.”
Yom Kippur for Everyone
Polls ahead of Yom Kippur this year showed that two thirds of Jewish Israelis intended to fast. However, a much smaller number indicated that they would be attending synagogue, with just 23% saying they intended to go to all prayer services, and 19% saying they would attend some. The remainder said that they would not attend at all because services are long, the liturgy unfamiliar, and the synagogue uncomfortable; they elected instead to relax at home or bike through the car-free streets.
Yachad coordinators responded to the challenges of Judaism’s holiest day by running their own services across the country, under the banner of “Yom Kippur for Everyone,” also in conjunction with the Tzohar rabbis. Each Yom Kippur for Everyone service is free and open to everyone; prayers are abridged and marked by singing, reflection and group study. Most importantly, like Shofar in the Park, the key is to hold the services in unthreatening, non-synagogue locations where secular, unaffiliated or even alienated Israelis would feel comfortable.
“As a secular Jew who for many years has felt uncomfortable going into a synagogue because I wasn’t able to follow what was happening, here I was given the opportunity to understand and participate,” wrote Yuval Shammai of Hod Hasharon, one of this year’s 62,400 participants at 350 locations across Israel. “It’s really, really great to feel that I belong.”
Another email received after Yom Kippur came from Orit, a 28-year-old woman who participated in one of the six locations in Ramat Gan: “My story with Judaism and with the religious world in particular is complex. In short, I have stayed away from anything remotely connected for the past decade; you might say that I’ve even been repelled by it. But then it happened: my boyfriend decided to stay over on Yom Kippur and said he wanted to do something. I posted on Facebook; you responded, and we decided to come. And I’m so glad we did! I discovered within the prayers and the togetherness a whole new world; a world that is pleasant and warm and accessible.”
Initiating Unity Through
A week of Chol HaMoed Sukkot festivities included communal sukkah building, decoration workshops and contests, nighttime outdoor learning sessions, musical events, fairs and more.
Unlike in the Diaspora, where Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are two different holidays, in Israel they are celebrated on the same day. Therefore, in recent years the tradition of Hakafot Shniyot (literally, “A second round of circles”) has grown widespread, to express solidarity with Jews outside of Israel keeping the “second day of Yom Tov.” Yachad coordinators organized many of the Hakafot Shniyot across the country in a bid to engage Israelis who wouldn’t normally attend an event in their local synagogue. Because the holiday is technically over, the events can feature live music, making the atmosphere “more like a party and less like a synagogue,” in the words of one participant.
A special Hakafot Shniyot took place in on the outdoor patio of the Givat Massua community center in Jerusalem – for women only. “Women young and old, secular and religious came to dance freely and with joy,” reported Yachad coordinator Racheli Semo, who organized the event – and whose own daughter was one of the DJs of the evening which featured music of all types and eras. “It was so empowering to see this pure love of Torah and camaraderie pouring out from the women, despite all of their differences. Perhaps unity between women is the first step towards achieving unity amongst the entire Jewish people? And what better way to initiate that than by dancing with the Torah!”