High Holidays in the Promised Land

Growing up in a Jewish family in the United States, I was accustomed to the annual ritual of attending lengthy synagogue services for the holidays. Certainly, for American Jewry, services for Rosh HaShana (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) are close to mandatory. It’s the only time all year that synagogue services are packed. Many synagogues sell tickets for seats due to the high demand. In Israel, however, the experience and expectations are completely different.

The period from Rosh Ha Shana through Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) is known as a chofesh (vacation). Schools are out for three weeks. Many families travel both overseas and around the country. It’s typical to begin the New Year with a festive meal, often with family and friends. Except for the religious community (around 20% of the population), synagogue attendance is rare. Most Messianic Jewish congregations here do not hold services. Last year we had our family stay with us for the few days. The same will be true this year. Because it’s a religious/national holiday, most stores, restaurants and public transportation are closed, thereby limiting what people can do within the country.

Yom Kippur is a unique day in Israel. Its religious meaning is that it is the day Jewish people seek and expect to receive God’s forgiveness for their sins and to be inscribed into the Book of Life for the coming year. Synagogue attendance is higher than that of Rosh Ha Shana. Fasting is a religious requirement for the holiday, and even though most Israelis do not consider themselves religious, most still fast. The most remarkable aspect of the day is that almost no one drives a car. Major highways are virtually empty. Instead, many young people flock to the roads with bicycles. Again, most Messianic Jewish congregations do not hold services, partially due to the custom of not driving.

For the past few years, Yad Ha Shmonah, a Messianic Jewish moshav (similar to a kibbutz) outside of Jerusalem, has hosted multi-congregational Yom Kippur services. Because Yad Ha Shmonah has a conference center, there is housing for many guests. Last year we had the privilege of attending the Yom Kippur service. There must have been 7-8 congregations represented. It was done very well and was very meaningful. This year, however, so many congregations are participating, that we got bumped. No room at the inn. Oh well. I’m not sure what we’ll do. We checked with friends of ours who attend our small worship group about the possibility of joining them for the day and attending their Masorti (Conservative) synagogue. But they live a 1 ½ hour walk from the congregation. The combination of fasting and the likely warm day makes that an impossibility for us. I know one of our daughters will stay in Jerusalem with friends and attend the one Messianic congregation there that does hold services. Once services are over in the evening and the morning, streets and sidewalks in the cities fill up with walkers. It’s really quite amazing.

Following Yom Kippur, it’s traditional to begin building a sukkah (a small booth immediately outside one’s home) that is central to the holiday of Sukkot. Its purpose is to remember that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness in temporary shelters for 40 years. Except in more religious communities in the United States, sukkot (plural of sukkah) are typically not erected. Rather, larger ones are built next to synagogues for community gatherings. In Israel, however, the home sukkot are very common. They are used to host family and friends for meals throughout the seven-day holiday period. Growing up, my family never erected a sukkah. Even later, when I was the rabbi of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Richmond, Virginia, I only built a sukkah a few times. (I’m not very handy, and what I did build was probably dangerous to sit under). Mostly, some of our congregants built a community one in front of our synagogue and gathered there. Last year, we bought the implements to build one. Because wood is rare and expensive here, most folks, including us, buy a metal pre-fab sukkah and then cover the sides with cloth – we used sheets. The pre-fab unit also included some bamboo poles to lay on top and then be covered by branches from trees, mostly palms.  Because of the strong winds, we had to anchor the sukkah with boulders. Otherwise, the sukkah would have been sailing along like Dorothy in her house in the Wizard of Oz.

To everyone, L’Shanah Tovah (Have a good year).