Meditation, poetry, introspection on offer to more secular

Instead of biking, a host of activities and prayer services more related to the traditional nature of Yom Kippur have sprung up.

rollerblading in Tel Aviv Yom Kippur_311 (photo credit: Wkipedia)
rollerblading in Tel Aviv Yom Kippur_311
(photo credit: Wkipedia)
“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 Israelis.
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 day.
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 country.
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 year.
“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.”
Amid 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 traditions.
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 tradition.”
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 movement.
“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.
Out 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 life.”
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.”