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Yom Kippur in Jerusalem

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Maya Glasser

Maya Glasser is a Rabbinic student at the HUC-JIR in New York. She is currently interning at ARZA

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It is a powerful feeling to observe the holiest days of the year in the Holy Land. A few years later, here's a reflection on the experience.

September 2013. The city was quiet. As my friends and I walked home from Kol Nidre services, I tried to put my finger on what felt different. Then I realized that there were no cars on the road. Other than small groups of people and the occasional bike, the streets were empty. We turned a corner and came to a busy intersection- except it wasn’t the usual kind of busy. Where six lanes of traffic, honking horns and shouting normally converged, people were sitting in circles, relaxing.

I instantly felt the meaning of Jewish Peoplehood. Where else in the world could this happen? On the holiest evening of the year, I didn’t get in the car and drive home from services and see everyone else going about their daily routines as I fasted and prayed. I was in the middle of the holiest city in the world, with thousands of people doing exactly what I was doing. All around me, people were fasting and praying. All around me, strangers were observing the same holiday that I was observing. It was incredibly powerful.

My friends and I took a seat, stretching out comfortably in the road we usually ran across as the light turned red. There was a group of people next to us reading out loud from a book they passed around. A few more people were chatting with one another. I saw a woman across the road reunite with someone she hadn’t seen in years. Of course, we meet long-lost friends in the middle of the street in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur eve.

This is what it means to live on Jewish time. During the year I spent in Israel, I got to see how the holidays were truly special, set aside from normal life like Christmas or July 4 in America. In Jerusalem, everything shuts down on Yom Kippur. Sukkot stretch out across balconies, and in front of restaurants. Hanukkah menorahs twinkle in public spaces, the busses wish you a Happy Purim, and whole grocery stories are specially labeled as Kosher for Passover. In Israel, the year is marked not by special sales, commercials, and Hallmark cards,  but Jewish rituals and celebrations. Being Jewish is ingrained into the calendar, and into daily life.

After appreciating our time hanging out in the middle of the street, my friends and I would return home. The next day, we would head back to our school for services, taking our time to pause and photograph in the middle of every normally bustling intersection. We would ruminate, reflect and repent in a glass room overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. As dusk fell, we would hear the sounds of the shofar echoing throughout the city. Along with people all over the country, we would stuff our faces with break fast as if we’d never eaten before. On the walk home, there would be cars on the street again, and the intersections would be busy once more.

September 2016. As I prepare myself for this year’s Holy Days, I cannot help but think about spending this same season in the Holy Land. I think fondly about the feeling of Peoplehood I experienced, and the fulfillment that came from being surrounded by everyone else observing the same holiday as I was.

Is this enough? In this season of renewal, as I do teshuvah for myself, I also think about Israel. Just as I strive to be the best I can be, I know that I want the same for the Jewish State. As I ask myself questions about how I can be better, and live a life based on Jewish values, questions arise about Israel, too. How could I feel so at home in a place that does not believe that my dream of being a Reform Rabbi is legitimate- that in fact, Reform Judaism itself is not legitimate? How does Jewish Peoplehood really work if I am questioned for observing practices that are meaningful to me, because of my gender? How can I help the Jewish State truly treat each person- women, Reform Jews, Arabs, and everyone else, as btzelem Elohim, created in the image of God?

We are imperfect, and so is Israel. This time in the Jewish calendar reminds us that we all have a lot of work to do- but we’re doing it together. Around the world, Jews are engaging in serious reflection. I pray that we are not content to merely enjoy sitting in the middle of the street in Israel on Kol Nidre, but we can also reflect on what we want and need from our Jewish State, and push it to do better, too.

May 5777 be a year of true reflection, renewal and growth: for us, for all Israel, and for all the world.