“A day of bike riding shall it be unto you.”
Walk around the streets of
many towns and cities on Yom Kippur, and you would be forgiven for thinking that
this is the principle commandment the Torah stipulates for Yom Kippur, such is
the prevalence of the bike-riding phenomenon among more secular
But in addition to this cyclical trend, a host of activities
and prayer services more related to the traditional nature of Yom Kippur have
sprung up, specifically targeting those who might otherwise be riding bikes or
generally doing something unrelated to the religious aspects of the
BINA, an organization established in 1996 to create a connection
between secular Israeli society and its Jewish roots, has been holding Yom
Kippur programs for the past five years, attracting between 300 to 400 people.
The schedule includes services for the Kol Nidrei, Musaf and Neilah prayers
along with a host of study sessions, meditation workshops, music and poetry
groups and discussion opportunities.
“For many people who attend our
program, it’s the first time they ever experience a meaningful Yom Kippur,” said
Eran Baruch, director of BINAH. “Most people go to the Sinai, or the Golan, ride
their bikes or watch a movie.
“At BINA, we’re not trying to recreate a
synagogue atmosphere but a cultural, communal and national experience to bring
Jewish culture closer to the lives of secular Israelis. It’s much more genuine
then what a lot of people do, which is to try to be religious for approximately
25 hours during the course of the year.”
Tovah Birenbaum, BINA’s
coordinator for its Yom Kippur service, sees a Jewish renaissance blossoming
among secular Israelis in recent years.
The desire to learn about Judaism
from a liberal perspective and for people to feel at home within their Jewish
cultural heritage has grown tremendously she said.
“We’re no longer in
the period of halutzim
[pioneers] – we don’t have that ideological drive which
was present at the founding of the state,” she said. “So people are now
searching for meaning. It’s a search for identity. There is a need for greater
communal life and we’re trying to build a community that reflects the world view
of people interested in their cultural heritage.”
Tzohar, a rabbinic
organization of a religious-Zionist inclination, is another group seeking to
attract Israelis to attend a Yom Kippur service, and is organizing this year 200
minyans in kibbutizim, moshavim and cultural centers across the
The “Praying Together” initiative is a more traditional approach
to Yom Kippur and is centered around a complete Yom Kippur service. Tzohar says
that it is expecting more than 50,000 participants to attend its services this
“Our approach is to make the Yom Kippur prayers as welcoming and
user-friendly as possible,” explained David Tannor, a professor of chemical
physics at the Weizmann Institute who has run a Tzohar sponsored Yom Kippur
service in Rehovot for the past seven years.
“We distribute Tzohar’s
explanatory machzor, a detailed schedule of the tephillot, and conduct a regular
page-update during the service,” he said. “It is a halachic service, but we have
a very non-intimidating mechitza [barrier between the sexes] and frequent
intervals for discussions and talks which are also given by women.”
frequent media and academic reports of the growing gulf between religious and
secular society, the idea behind the services of Tzohar and other groups is to
provide secular Israelis with the opportunity to have input into what they want
from the holidays, and for them to reclaim their heritage and
As those at BINA highlighted, Tannor also sees a revival of
interest in Jewish culture, evidenced by the establishment by secular groups of
learning institutes for Jewish studies and an increasing awareness of the value
in Jewish tradition and wisdom.
“Torah doesn’t belong to just the
religious,” he said.
“It’s an et ratzon [literally, a time of will], a
really magical time in which people are discovering the treasures of our common
The Reform Movement in Israel has also been expanding its
efforts during the High Holidays period of late. This year there will be 40
progressive minyans up and down the country run by the Reform movement from Rosh
Pinah to Sderot and Holon to Nahariya.
“Simply going to shul a couple of
times a year on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is not particularly meaningful,”
said Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israeli reform
“This is why we want to build progressive and egalitarian
communities and prayer services around the country.”
“There is a real
need for non- Orthodox expressions of Judaism,” he said. “The Jewish public is
definitely interested in a Jewish renaissance, so the Reform movement is serving
the needs of the secular and traditionalist population in Israel who want to
explore and celebrate their Jewish identity and tradition but don’t want to do
it in the Orthodox fashion.”
A familiar theme running through the
thoughts and activities of groups trying to attract disenfranchised Jews back to
Judaism is the identification of a need for community and belonging.
of the Reform holiday services, Kariv says, has arisen ongoing communal events
throughout the rest of the year. These do not necessarily include regular
Shabbat services, but grow organically in a way that he said “respects the
desires and needs of the community to enhance its Jewish identity and community
In Rehovot, the Yom Kippur services have, since their inception,
also spawned a number of other Judaism-oriented events, such as the pluralistic
beit hamidrash (study hall) sessions set up by Tannor’s Psifas (Mosaic)
organization which meets every two weeks, and the building every year of a
220-squaremeter communal succa, which now hosts speakers and performers arranged
by the Rehovot Municipality.
And BINA has established a Secular Yeshiva
in Tel Aviv which, it said, allows participants to delve into their Jewish
cultural heritage, develop in a spiritual manner and focus on the
social-humanist aspects of Judaism.
Rabbi Stav, chairman of Tzohar sums
up the aims of this revivalist movement well: “Our goal is to help secular
Israelis feel less alienated when it comes to religious practice and show them
that there are many ways to embrace religion and become spiritually involved
with one’s Judaism,” he said.
“We know that despite being classified as
secular, this segment of Israeli society often has a burning desire to
demonstrate their love for Jewish tradition and we strongly believe that this
effort will help them feel closer to their identity as proud Jews.”