Yachad: Connecting Jews to the High Holidays, their Heritage and Each Other
The High Holidays are a time when Jews of all backgrounds seek meaning and opportunities to connect – even Israelis who identify as secular or who may feel alienated from synagogues and Jewish institutions they view as “religious.” During this uniquely reflective time in the Jewish calendar, Jewish cultural coordinators from OTS’s Yachad Program for Jewish Identity typically plan a range of large-scale events enabling tens of thousands of people of all ages to explore the themes relevant to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and celebrate the holidays in venues comfortable for them. As the Israeli government imposed a second lockdown just in time for Rosh Hashana, our Yachad coordinators showed tremendous flexibility and creativity, adapting programs to meet new health regulations while continuing to imbue meaning and Jewish connection in the hearts of thousands.
As Jews typically begin preparing spiritually for the high holidays in the Hebrew month of Elul, Yachad programming offered experiential opportunities for families and people of all ages to reflect on the upcoming holidays. Selichot are communal prayers for divine forgiveness, said daily from late on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana (in Ashkenazic tradition), or from the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul (in Sephardic tradition). Throughout Israel, Yachad offered special selichot tours — in person according to health restrictions, as well as an online selichot tour through the winding alleyways and synagogues of Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood with renowned Israeli storyteller Jacky Levy.
“In recent years, attending selichot tours in Jerusalem has become somewhat of a tradition even amongst people who consider themselves secular,” said Yachad program director Rabbi Shay Nave. “We wanted to make sure that this year, despite the ever-increasing restrictions put in place by the Ministry of Health in the face of Covid, that as many Israelis as possible could log on and participate from the comfort of their own living room.”
In a tour of Jerusalem focused on chesed – the importance of giving to others, residents of Azor learned about the histories of several old-time Jerusalem families and how they contributed to their neighborhood, reflecting on how they can help others, as well.
According to Orah, a participant from Azor, “The tour that I went on focused on chesed – the importace of giving to others. We learned the histories of several old-time Jerusalem families and how they contributed to their neighborhoods, and through that we reflected on how we can help others as well. It was both meaningful and fun for me and my children,” she said, “especially the grand finale of visiting the Kotel in a socially-distanced yet very spiritual way.”
“We are all equal, worthy and connected”
Hearing the shofar is an important experience for Jews of all backgrounds, religious and secular alike. “The sound of the shofar is very natural and simple. It’s a sound that gives us an opportunity to reconnect from a place of understanding that we are all equal, worthy and connected to one another,” said Yachad coordinator Eliahu Galil to Yair Cherki, a reporter for Israeli Channel 12 News who featured the Yachad Program’s “Shofar BaPark” (Shofar in the Park) initiative.
Shofar BaPark, run annually in partnership with the Tzohar Rabbinical organization, brings the shofar out of the synagogue and makes it accessible to everyone, together with interactive learning activities for children and adults. This year, Shofar BaPark – which means, literally, Shofar blowing in the Park – took on extra meaning in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Israeli news reports warned of an impending country-wide lockdown and changes in health restrictions including shuttering synagogues and limiting the number of people who can pray in any given location, dozens of volunteers were mobilized to blow shofar, tell stories related to Rosh Hashana, say the tashlich prayers, and spread the spirit of Rosh Hashana to 17,000 Israelis in parks and playgrounds across Israel, as well as blowing shofar in open spaces adjacent to apartments and homes for thousands of people who were unable to leave their homes.
In North Tel Aviv alone nearly 2,000 people participated in activities at approximately 40 locations. According to Yachad coordinator in Northern Tel Aviv, Uri Weill, “This year especially, as we began Rosh Hashana with our second lockdown in six months and in the shadow of the coronavirus, it was particularly important for people to find a way to gather, connect to each other and to the themes of the holiday.”
“People needed this opportunity more than ever before”
Even people who typically don’t attend synagogue seek opportunities to connect to their heritage on Yom Kippur. Unlike religious Israelis who know how to pray on their own, secular Israelis under lockdown were unsure how they would celebrate the holiday without guidance, and implored Yachad facilitators to find solutions to enable them to come together in keeping with the strict health regulations.
Based on the success of Shofar BaPark, Yachad coordinators developed a similar model, arranging welcoming, “user-friendly” Yom Kippur services in several outdoor spaces across Israel which attracted hundreds of people who came with masks, obeyed social distancing regulations, and thanked facilitators over and over for giving them the opportunity to enjoy the meaningful holiday experience that they craved.
“It’s difficult to express the significance of our Yom Kippur service,” said Bat Yam coordinator Roi Peretz. “Hundreds of people, young and old, came to be together. Divided into groups, spread across a huge park, people just sang and sang. More than any time I can remember, Israelis needed this opportunity to connect to something deep inside.”
For families who remained at home during lockdown, the Yachad program’s national leadership created a special downloadable booklet with inspirational stories, activities for the family and popular songs related Yom Kippur and its themes of teshuva, tefilla and tzedakah.
“We don’t consider ourselves religious, but we do fast, and we never miss Ne’ila service at the end,” said Avi Gisser of Rechovot, one of the hundreds of families across Israel that dowloaded the booklet. “There was something so intimate about marking the day at home with the kids and really putting time into them, explaining to them and exploring along with them some of Yom Kippur’s core meanings. It actually injected tremendous meaning into the day – something we’ve never had before. Obviously we look forward to being able to attend the service by next year, but from now on, because of our family discussions around the booklet, it will be with a renewed sense of connection,” he said.