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Yom Kippur in Israel…the ultimate ‘Only in Israel’ experience.

A vehicle-free Route 4 shortly before the start of the Yom Kippur fast.
Courtesy of the writer.
A vehicle-free Route 4 shortly before the start of the Yom Kippur fast. Courtesy of the writer.

Yom Kippur in Israel is unique. It is the ultimate “Only in Israel” experience. Whereas in the Diaspora, Yom Kippur is a quiet and somewhat understated personal day for self-reflection, prayer and fasting, here in Israel it is so much more. It is a national holiday, one that nearly every person observes in some way.

I just observed my 19th Yom Kippur in Israel.  I can still remember my family’s first year here in Ra’anana, in 2005. Having never spent the High Holidays in Israel before, we were in for a surprise. Close to the start of the fast, TV channels stopped broadcasting, the radio programs shut down, and the streets outside became quiet. Though we had heard that the streets would be closed to traffic, we had never seen anything like that before.  For new olim coming from the not-very-Jewish Diaspora, this was a big deal and almost unbelievable (All the streets and even the highways? I am still amazed when I see it all these years later).  Walking home from shul- in the middle of the street, of course- that first Kol Nidrei night, we were shocked to see the masses of people, young and old, clustered in groups by the (usually off-limits) roundabouts, kids in full riding gear and backpacks, looking ready for La Vuelta. The next day, during the shul break between musaf and mincha, we walked over to Route 4 to see the empty highway with our own eyes. It was true! And it was obvious that the whole country was observing the holiday.  In some form or another.  How great is that?

I have been here in Israel every year since then. I fast and observe the holiday to the fullest, as is my family’s custom, yet each year I am amazed at how seriously the country takes Yom Kippur.  Six years ago I had the privilege of spending Yom Kippur in Beilinson Hospital with my father, who was having health issues and needed to be hospitalized over the holiday. My sister and I weren’t going to let our Dad spend Yom Kippur alone in a hospital, and quickly made arrangements to stay at the hotel across the street (no breakfast included, of course). I call it a “privilege” because not only was it an honor to spend the holiday with my father, but the experience that we had was so unexpectedly memorable.  Looking back, my sister and I both agree that it was the most spiritual Yom Kippur we have ever experienced.

In 2017, there were two “synagogues” at Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tikva. One was a very beautifully designed Sephardic shul, obviously built by generous donors. The other one was actually a small room, resembling a prayer chapel. This one was Ashkenazi, and the one my Ashkenazi father was going to attend.  There wasn’t much room to sit; chairs and benches formed uneven makeshift rows in the tiny women’s section.  The worshippers were a mix of patients, attendants, and family members. The patients came in their hospital robes, in wheelchairs, attached to oxygen and other machines. We made room for everyone as best as we could. Some came to pray, others to listen. There were children too, patients who had come to daven in their pajamas. I admit that at first, it was somewhat jarring to look around.  Seeing people in this state, all gathered together to daven, was at the same time both sad and hopeful.  People came in and out, staying as long as they could. My father, who always took every holiday very seriously and never went late to a minyan in his life, was able to attend only some of the services. When he got tired we took turns escorting him back to his room and keeping him company. It was a long night and an even longer day. Yet we all kept coming back, sometimes with the patients themselves, other times alone to “catch up” on davening.  Looking around during the tefillah, we saw family members- not the patients– crying softly as they prayed, no doubt pleading with Hashem to heal their loved ones.  It was hard to watch, yet it was so natural. For some they knew it was just a temporary visit. For others their loved ones might never be going home.

By the time of the Neilah prayer, the last hour of the service and right before the fast ended, there wasn’t a dry eye in that small synagogue.  I have never seen and heard people pray and sing with such kavana (intent and meaning) as I did that day. Everyone there was praying not only for forgiveness for their own sins, but for their loved ones too, that Hashem should give them back their health, or ease their suffering just a bit, or let them stay on this earth just a little longer….

As the prayers and the fast ended and the shofar was blown, all of us wished each other a good year and good health. I looked around at everyone there. We didn’t know each other’s names or where anyone came from. We didn’t know why each person was there in the hospital. We didn’t know who would get to go home and who wouldn’t. Would anyone be here next year?

My father was fortunate to be able to go home a few days later. He was with us for 17 more months before he met his Creator in early 2019.  We will never forget that memorable Yom Kippur though.

Fast forward to 2023.  Yom Kippur was quiet and peaceful. Or so we thought. As I davened Neilah at my shul here in Tel Mond, I had no idea that there were clashes that had broken out in Tel Aviv during the public prayer services. I never could have imagined that this holy day would be anything but harmonious and meaningful, for everyone. All I could see as I looked around me were worshippers singing and praying. I glanced down from the balcony and I saw the synagogue packed to capacity, with every type of Jew of every level of observance all standing together, singing together, united.  It’s a shame that it couldn’t be like this for everyone.

In memory of my Dad, Ted Resnick z”l, may his memory be a blessing.

Wishing everyone a very happy, healthy, and peaceful Sukkot.

About the Author
Chana Resnick Pinto made aliya in 2005 and lives in the Sharon area of Central Israel. She has a BA in English from Yeshiva University and an MSEd from Bank Street College of Education in New York City. Chana works at Eric Cohen Books in Ra'anana and loves living in Israel. She encourages everyone to stop and smell the flowers and always appreciate the small things.
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