Opinion

On Yom Kippur, Diaspora Jews and Secular Israelis Should Learn From Each Other

Like secular Israelis do, Diaspora Jews should incorporate Jewish culture into their identity with more fluency and ownership. What better time than the new year to start?

An Israeli walks down one of Tel Aviv's main streets during Yom Kippur, when the city grinds to a halt. 2015.
Ofer Vaknin, Haaretz

In Israel, the High Holy Days are unavoidable, no matter one’s level of observance. The spirit of the religious New Year permeates the country’s natural rhythms – schools are closed, highways are empty. Secular Israelis are certainly not excluded from this cycle and, in fact, are known to take advantage of the holiday season. Rather than attend synagogue, the national lull provides opportunity for a pseudo-vacation.

The Israeli calendar’s forced recognition of the holiday season lends a certain freedom of expression to the experience. Even if one is not planning to attend synagogue, the day off is still guaranteed. This flexibility was new to me; as an American olah, or new immigrant, I was used to either spending the day in synagogue or proceeding with my life as normal. But in Israel, people can choose to spend the holiday in all sorts of ways. I have loved having the opportunity to experiment. 

Certainly some secular Israelis opt for cheeky traditions during the holidays. But for many, extreme irreverence or complete disregard for the holiday’s meaning is not always the right option. In recent years, Tel Aviv has offered alternative opportunities for marking Yom Kippur. Meditation classes, holiday retreats and non-traditional ceremonies are advertised with pride. The emphasis on Jewish creativity is at its best during this day, and it has been meaningful for me, as an American, to participate. 

One of these alternative offerings occurs at BINA, the Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv. The secular yeshiva offers an important compromise for how to approach the holiday: a secular Yom Kippur service, filled with singing and learning. The experience is uniquely Israeli – not devoid of Jewish tradition, but certainly not traditional either. Every year, around 500 Israelis attend BINA’s service. This figure demonstrates the great demand for secular Israelis to find an experience that allows them to abstain from religious communities that don't represent them, while still finding meaningful to find ways to mark Yom Kippur. 

This year, BINA is incorporating English-friendly components to their primarily Hebrew Yom Kippur ceremony. The decision indicates BINA’s growing understanding that there is much to gain from inviting English-speaking Jews into their secular community. I am excited by this initiative; as an American non-observant Jew in Tel Aviv, I am fascinated by the way secular Israelis create Jewish identities that are vibrant and non-traditional. And for Yom Kippur in particular, I also never felt that praying in synagogue was the most meaningful way for me to mark the holidays, so I am eager to participate in a ceremony that transforms the religious components of Yom Kippur into a service with cultural significance. 

Yet as I have worked on incorporating English translations into the event’s prayer book, I got to thinking: Will English-speakers relate to this? Do English speakers truly need a secular Yom Kippur service? 

Many of the English-speaking Jewish communities worldwide have already negotiated a middle ground between the poles of religious and secular. Typically, English speakers do not self-identify on the binary of Israeli culture; they craft an identity that exists somewhere between the poles of "secular" and "religious." So, non-Orthodox Yom Kippur services are already familiar to us. The flexibility of Diaspora Judaism has its pitfalls, certainly, but one advantage is clear: Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative (and everything betwixt and between) Jews have been guarded from the sting of Israel’s Jewish bipolarity. So yes: English speakers really need an Israeli-style service, another new liturgy.

Liberal Diaspora Judaism has so much to learn from secular Israelis who are reimagining their relationship to Judaism. We need to see what it means for Jewish ideas to be expressed through culture – through poems, songs and community gatherings.

Here in Tel Aviv, secular Israelis are learning Talmud, growing the Jewish literary canon and reinterpreting Jewish wisdom. They are expanding the limits of what it means to have a cultural Jewish identity. English-speaking Jews should be contributing to these efforts at Jewish learning and should incorporate Jewish culture into our identity with more fluency and ownership. 

Israeli secular Jews have so much to learn from liberal Diaspora Jews, as well. Diaspora Jews have already proven our ability to rewrite liturgy – we have come to Tel Aviv and offered opportunities to daven on the sand, for example. Liberal Jews are on the front lines of demonstrating how Jewish values can be expressed through art and entrepreneurship and social justice activism. And, most importantly, we know that these practices can be performed outside the lines of typical religious observance. Secular Israelis should see us as examples for how to relate to Jewish religious tradition in a way that feels authentic, reasonable, and honest. 

The relationship between diaspora liberal Judaism and Israeli secularism is still being negotiated – and their evolving relationship is still yet to unfold. Yet one thing is clear: Both communities need to be in conversation with each other. Non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews are looking for ways for their Judaism to be part of their cultural identity, and secular Israeli Jews are thirsting for ways that their cultural identity can feel more Jewish. Opportunities in Tel Aviv that support the efforts of these two communities to intermingle, dialogue, and coexist, are expanding – and they should not be overlooked.

What better time than the new year, this Yom Kippur, to start?

Zoe Jick works at BINA: The Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv. She is the founder of Beit Midrash TLV, the only full-time program for Jewish learning in English in Tel Aviv.