High Holidays in Israel

The High Holidays in Israel are a very special time. Rosh HaShanna and Yom Kippur are a time of celebration, self-reflection, and prayer for Jews all over the world. In Israel, the holidays represent much more; Rosh HaShanna and Yom Kippur have cultural and national significance as well.

The biggest difference between Israel and America during the High Holidays is the practice of Yom Kippur. In America, fasting on Yom Kippur is widely the norm among the Jewish community. Fasting on Yom Kippur, to many, is the ultimate decider of who wants to be part of the Jewish people or not. The day is very serious and is practiced by fasting, attending synagogue to pray, and reflection. In Israel, Yom Kippur is also a very serious day, but in a very different way. Israel is full of many different ways of observation. Here on the kibbutz many people don’t fast on Yom Kippur. A lot of reasoning for this comes from the whole “Tzabarnik” mentality. When the State was created the idea of the “Yehudi HaChadash” (“The New Jew”) was also created. The New Jew was expected to be tough and many times was secular as a way of turning away from the ways of Jews in Europe, who were viewed as weak. One thing many of them turned away from was the traditional interpretation of Judaism, which would include fasting on Yom Kippur.  To this day that mentality resonates with some Israelis. Yom Kippur to many in Israel is viewed as more than a day of just reflection but also as an opportunity to socialize with the neighbors by walking down the streets as kids race each other on their bicycles (since cars stay off the roads in Israel during Yom Kippur). On the other hand, many within Israeli society take it as a very serious day of prayer, fast, and self-reflection. Although there are many different ways of observing the holiday, the entire nation stops to remember the lives that were lost in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War.

I spent my Yom Kippur as a fusion of the secular and religious worlds. Although I spent it at a secular house, we were side by side with dati leumi (national religious) guests. I kept the fast as I do every year and went to religious services. I am not a regular to religious occasions so I felt somewhat out of place for much of the service. At the end of the service, however, people from all walks of life in Israeli society joined to hear the shofar. In one small kibbutz dining hall (that was transformed into a temporary synagogue for the holiday) were Jews with origins from Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, South America, North America, and Africa. At the conclusion of this service were ultra religious and ultra secularists. At the end of the service, however, everyone stood side by side as we happily rejoiced “Next Year in Jerusalem!” This year that final statement meant a little more.

About the Author
Ben Rathauser is the Founder of The Overcomers Project, which is devoted to helping teenagers and young adults overcome their personal hardships this summer in Israel. To learn more about this unique program, reach out via email to, or call 561-710-9950.