WTF Is Yom Kippur and Why It Should Matter to Everyone


As a 13-year old Jewish American Person, Yom Kippur was the holiday that my mom dragged me to synagogue and I was forced to starve a slow AF death, or what some shmuck called a  “fast.” There was chatter about repentance, forgiveness, and some big book of life, but I didn’t understand it a bit. I knew YK was the holiest of holidays according to my religion, but it didn’t make my soul twinge like when we lit the Menorah on Chanukah or while sitting down to a proper Friday night dinner.

All I understood about Yom Kippur was that it meant hours of mumbling men reading quickly through a prayer book, and pondering with each page turn how much closer we were getting to the bagels and cream cheese.


At 18, I shipped off, or drove 90 minutes up the Garden State Parkway, to university in North Jersey. All of a sudden, Yom Kippur took a Jersey-like roundabout. I had grown up in a very diverse community, and if I had to describe my new school as an ice cream flavor, I would warmly call it a rich vanilla bean with Italian swirl and mozzarella sprinkles.

The first month of freshman year was a complete blur. Yom Kippur existed somewhere towards Parkway South. It was repentance time somewhere, but I was too busy gaining pounds at the dining hall and perfecting my keg stands.

The next year, I lived with eight of my friends in a suite on campus. I was surrounded by five Italians, two Irish and one Canadian.


Some of them had never met a Jew before and it became my responsibility to enlighten my suitemates about Judaism.

“You’ve never had a cheeseburger? Is that a Jewish church? What do those big Jewish crackers taste like? If we sprinkled holy water over you, what would happen?

When Yom Kippur hit, the curious Canadian was popping questions about everything atonement. Is it like confession? Why do they call it a fast if it goes so slow? If you go to Wawa and then ask forgiveness, does it work? Does this make you a bad Jew?

As I devoured my Wawa hoagie with a soda on the side, her last question stuck with me. Bad Jew? Maybe I do need to set a better example and take my Token Jew responsibilities more seriously. I was proud to be Jewish after all and I loved sharing the traditions of my religion with others, especially those who knew absolutely none of its genuine beauty.


It wasn’t until I moved back home after graduation as an unemployed college graduate that a real shift occurred.

I was 22 and I had a big decision to make. On the same day as Yom Kippur was a reunion mixer at college. Do I go and sin, or stay and suffer?

We were mixing with my favorite frat – you know, the kind that respects a woman’s right to get herself drunk before taking advantage of her. It was CEO’s and secretary hoes and I had just graduated with a business degree! I belonged at this mixer and I needed a taste of college again – even if the entirety of my religion was committed to not tasting anything for the next 25 hours.

After four years of an unkosher Yom Kippur at school, what’s one more year of sin? I decided to go. Along my journey, I received a phone call.

“Turn around and get home NOW.”

My mom had told me it was my decision to make, but I quickly discovered that A. she was lying, and B. I had made the wrong one. I pulled to the side of the highway and cried. I was 30 minutes from home, 60 minutes from fun, and something was sitting heavily inside my throat.

It was the first time I felt the importance of Yom Kippur. I felt guilt. Shame. Anger. Sadness. FOMO.

I turned around and drove home, and the next day, I chose to go to synagogue with my mom.


At 25, I moved to Tel Aviv. I had been working in customer assurance at the busiest casino in Atlantic City, and I was done listening to people gripe about overdone steaks, homicidal hotel room coolers, and the parking employee who sometimes picked his nose.

One of the most soul-grabbing experiences yet was my first Yom Kippur in Israel. What is typically a bustling bubble of urban chaos becomes a blissful evening of silence and slowness.

Everything shuts down. Cars don’t drive. Cable companies don’t air anything. Every single shop is closed. The entire country pauses for 25 hours in honor of Yom Kippur.

While religious men walk to synagogue dressed in white, preparing to sway their atonement-filled abs until they are inscribed in the book of life, tiny gangs of children roam the empty streets on their tiny vehicles. Locals laze along the streets, hungry with nothing to do but talk, think and breathe. Bicyclists spin freely on the open roads, for once not having to fear about drivers or traffic, and all that comes with it.

It was the first time I recognized that YK was something different for everyone, but we were all experiencing it together. It didn’t matter if you were going to synagogue or skateboarding down the slanted city streets, it was new kind of Yom Kippur – one that I had finally awakened to and wanted to discover for myself.

I’ve spent the last five years in Israel fasting and strolling with friends. Reflecting. Writing. Breathing. Staring at the sea. Watching movies. Okay fine, and LOTS of napping.

It wasn’t until my 5th year in Israel that I could say I fully understood, or at least connected in my own personal way with, the meaning of Yom Kippur. It was the year I turned 30 and also actively pursued opportunities for learning about both personal and human development.


I went to a lecture by one of the coolest rabbis I know named Doniel Katz. He’s open minded, hysterically endearing and he keeps it real on all levels. He runs a program called the Elevation Project and is well-known for his modern inspirational take on ancient Judaism.

Katz described how YK relates to humanity and no matter who or what you believe in, even if nothing at all, following these guidelines once a year would simply make the world a better place – and I’ll tell you why.

Because honoring the holy day has nothing to do with Judaism, and everything to do with humanity, kindness and forgiveness.

For a moment, I warmly challenge you to forget everything you know or think about religion – and focus on ‘humanity’ as our only faith. Here is what I learned which helped me see it all clearly:

1. On this day, we choose to recognize what we’ve done in the past so that we can move forward towards a more fulfilling future.
2. On this day, we recognize the things we don’t want to be and the wrongful things we’ve done.
3. On this day, we choose to rise to our highest self awareness to see the ways we have hurt others, and in turn hurt ourselves.
4. On this day, we choose to take a baseball bat to ourselves, with compassion and honesty.
5. On this day, we choose to let go of our fear, lust and ego – and embrace our humanity, kindness and forgiveness.
6. On this day, we choose to eliminate the excuses and release the regrets.
7. On this day, we choose to remember the kind of human we want to be.


The point is to pause. For 25 hours. With self reflection. With forgiveness and compassion. And unfortunately, without the privilege of food as a distraction.

The most fundamental aspect of life is the capacity of choice. We each must have a willingness to grow, forgive, and develop into better humans. We must show kindness to ourselves so we can be kind to others. And Yom Kippur, ie the human holy day, is an annual reminder to pause and think about our roles within this human experience.

So what if humanity were our only faith? The moment we’re able to transform our fear into one faith is the moment humanity will take one giant leap forward into a more peaceful and tolerant world.

Create an opportunity for yourself to focus solely on your soul. Focus on your wrongs, let them go, and then choose to live right, for you – and for all of us right here with you.

About the Author
Zo is professionally passionate about making the world a brighter place to live on the daily. Israeli born and New Jersey raised, she made Aliyah to pursue a life of meaningful culture, beautiful chaos, stunning views and the best hummus ever.
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