A Rabbi’s View From Tel Aviv

The conclusion of the Neilah services at Kikar Atarim, Tel Aviv 2023
The conclusion of the Neilah services at Kikar Atarim, Tel Aviv 2023

Note: this letter was written to our community in the aftermath of the events of Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv. It is shared here in the hope that it resonates and is relevant for a broader community

To our beloved JLIC TLV community

Yom Kippur 5784 in Tel Aviv was beautiful and inspiring. It was also devastating. And because it wasn’t a Yom Kippur like any previous one and because we are living in a tumultuous place at a tumultuous time, it’s important to try and understand the meaning of this moment. This is true for all Israelis. For those of us who seek to be both proud religious Jews and open-hearted residents of this great city it is critical.

Yom Kippur was beautiful and inspiring if only for the indoor daytime tefillot that we attended – and that attracted no headlines. Services that were packed with an incredible atmosphere of singing and genuine tefilla. They were populated by the people who make up one of the most vibrant, passionate, creative and open Jewish communities I have known anywhere in the world — and which it is a huge zechut to be a part of. Read and remember this: Tel Aviv boasts one of the greatest, most energetic and vibrant religious Jewish communities anywhere in the world today. Period.

Yom Kippur was devastating when we heard reports of what had happened at Kikar Dizengoff and of disturbances elsewhere in the city. Here is just one account from Kikar Dizengoff itself that is enough to break any heart:

They physically and repeatedly shoved my wife. They threatened to punch me in the face as I held my 18-month-old daughter in my arms. They said to my wife “Your unborn fetus will be ashamed to be born to a mother like you,” and proceeded to harass and menace her, following for over 300 feet with a cell phone shoved in her screaming, screaming, “You’re being recorded! You’re being recorded!”

This wonderful couple made aliya a month ago. They went to the tefilla not because they are Rosh Yehudi supporters or even know much about them. They went because they live right by the square – and were excited, as might be any Jew who has grown up in the diaspora, dreaming of life in the Jewish state – to daven together with Am Yisrael in the streets of a Jewish city. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of Rosh Yehudi’s decisions, we are in a dark, dark place when this sort of interaction occurs.

At Neilah. Kikar Atarim – the outdoor tefilla by the sea organised by the 126 Ben Yehuda community. These tefillot have been happening for a number of years and attract thousands. Unlike Rosh Yehudi, a kiruv organisation, these are the services of a local and very vibrant shul that has been in the neighbourhood since before Israeli independence. The shul has experienced a huge resurgence in recent years and has become a hub for many of the anglo olim to the city who are attracted to the shul – as they are to the city – for its vibrancy, openness and non-judgmental character. It’s a place that we are proud to be involved with.

4,000 people came together to pray. Regulars in shul, and a much larger group for whom this was their annual day of tefilla. Women with their hair covered, and guys with surfboards on their way back from the beach. Some familiar with the machzor, some asking for assistance with the pages and some simply waiting for the shofar.

At the start I shared a few words that presented neilah not as our last chance ‘to get in the door,’ but as a time when we are already inside, we have been for a long time, and that this is ‘last orders’ call at the bar from Hashem. We have an hour left to ask for whatever we like for ourselves, our families, our communities and the city, before the shofar blows and the bar closes.

There were those who came to disrupt and disturb. A man in an achim l’neshek shirt held out his phone before the services had started and said loud enough for those around him to hear:

עוד מעט יגיעו מאות לטפל בכם Soon hundreds will be here to deal with you.

That might be the most vile line I have heard in my life and not one I will be able to forget anytime soon. But the hundreds of protesters did not arrive and the sporadic incidents did not disrupt the overall beauty and awe of the tefilla.

Where do we go from here? Three Thoughts

Writing these words 36 hours after the end of the fast and with the internet already full of hot takes, here is what I see – from the heart of Tel Aviv – as some of the takeaways:

First of all, with the heaviest heart, we must acknowledge that we’ve lost our innocence. Innocence that there perhaps remained something which was sacred and above ugly politics. Something was taken from us this Yom Kippur and we will not get it back. It is deeply painful that there are parts of society for whom Yom Kippur prayers are political fair game.

There are many in the protest movement who understand what a strategic mistake the disruptions were. I think that there are fewer who understand that from the point of view of those who were at prayer, a sacred taboo was violated. This is the price we pay when Israeli identity becomes totally divorced from Jewish identity. This loss of innocence offers a challenge and an opportunity for secular Israeli society: to take ownership over their own Jewish identity. Not through coercion. Or through someone else’s agenda. But on their own terms.

Second and just as important: Our community – and religious Jews around the world – must not give up on Tel Aviv as a city where we also belong. The very opposite. We should be immensely proud of the quality of religious Jewish life in Tel Aviv – which counts among its great strengths being tolerant and welcoming of all.

We must recognise that there were literally thousands of people who do not regularly attend tefillot – who were grateful for the opportunity to pray on Yom Kippur, or just hear the shofar. This number far far outnumbers those who came to protest our prayers. This explains why the ones who responded most angrily to the protesters at our services were not our regular members but those for whom Yom Kippur is the one day of the year that they do pray – and who felt something priceless was being taken away from them.

The lesson I take from this is that not only should we be proud of the religious Jewish life we live and breathe in Tel Aviv, but also realise that we are not alone and that there are many in our neighbourhoods who appreciate our presence. We will be good neighbours. Building friendships and connections with respect. Learning about others. And helping others learn about us. We give to this place. We gain from this place. Like all citizens. We belong here.

Finally, we must remain independent from the culture war that is taking place around us. We are being presented with binaries: Israeli vs. Jewish, left vs. right, protest vs. judicial reform – but we reject the demand to fit into one of these categories to the exclusion of the other. Many people in Israel assume that if you look a certain way and pray a certain way (or at all) then your politics must be a certain way. We unequivocally reject this assumption. A healthy Jewish community is one that contains a diversity of political opinions and does not check people at the door to see if their politics meet a certain standard.

We must fight against the notion that religious identity is identical with political identity. This cheapens Torah. It renders that which is eternal and holy as dependent upon secular, partisan politics. It tells Jews who are legitimately separated by their politics, that they are in fact separated by their religion.

Can all this be avoided? Even this year? Yes. A large part of the power of initiatives such as the Kikar Atarim tefilla is because they allow a wide diversity of people to benefit from the beauty of Judaism regardless of their political identifications and with no desire to remake everyone in the same religious mould. Within the current Israeli maelstrom, modelling this version of community is one of the greatest contributions that we can make.

Communal Teshuva At This Time

When I last shared thoughts about our community’s mission in these divided times before Tisha B’av I argued we must draw from Jewish historical ability to prioritise hope over despair. Now I want to suggest that we take seriously the idea of collective Teshuva.

There is a beautiful prayer called Tefillat Zaka, printed at the front of the Yom Kippur machzor, that it is customary to say before Kol Nidre. Written in the 19th century by Rav Avraham Danzig, author of the Chayei Adam, it contains the following passage:

וְהִנְנִי מוֹחֵל בִּמְחִילָה גְמוּרָה לְכָל מִי שֶׁחָטָא נֶגְדִּי, בֵּין בְּגוּפוֹ וּבֵין בְּמָמוֹנוֹ, אוֹ שֶׁדִּבֶּר עָלַי לָשׁוֹן …וּוְלֹא יֵעָנֵשׁ שׁוּם אָדָם בְּסִבָּתִי. וּכְשֵׁם שֶׁאֲנִי מוֹחֵל לְכָל אָדָם, כֵּן תִּתֵּן אֶת חִנִּי בְּעֵינֵי כָּל אָדָם שֶׁיִמְחֲלוּ לִי בִּמְחִילָה גְמוּרָה.

I grant complete forgiveness to all those who have sinned against me, whether against my body or my property, or who spoke evilly against me… and no one should be punished on my account. And just as I forgive every person, please grant me favour in the eyes of all that they will also grant me complete forgiveness.

It is built into the nature of human interactions that whether consciously or unconsciously, we do wrong to others. We hurt them. And they do wrong to us and hurt us. Rav Danzig’s suggestion and prayer is that if we can forgive what others have done to us, then God will make it easier for others to forgive us.

When reading these lines on Sunday night I thought to myself what it would be like for each hurting sector of Israeli society to say “We forgive the wrongs that have been done to us, and we hope that others can forgive us too.”

What an idea! What a vision! Perhaps that is too much to hope for. But it is a challenge worthy of the name and can give us a framework to carry our pain forward to a productive place.

May our Torah texts and Jewish lives be vehicles that bring our city and society back to a place of respect and harmony and not chas v’shalom be that which divides us from one another.

With love and blessings

Rabbi Joe Wolfson

About the Author
Joe Wolfson is the director of the Amital Center at Har Etzion and co-director and rabbi of JLIC TLV - a community of young olim in Tel Aviv working in partnership with local synagogues and organisations. From 2015 to 2022 he served as the JLIC Rabbi at NYU in downtown Manhattan. He is passionate about building welcoming Jewish communities in urban environments that are deeply connected to their surroundings. In 2020 he was recognised as one of The Jewish Week’s 36 under 36 for his Covid relief work.
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