Midnight Selichot Prayers in Jerusalem Drawing Huge Crowds

Judy Maltz
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Women praying during a Selichot service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.Credit: Michal Fattal
Judy Maltz

It may be the most booming business in Jerusalem these days, but despite its religious character, it caters – rather paradoxically – to a largely secular crowd.

Welcome to the world of Selichot tours. It’s a phenomenon that draws tens of thousands to the capital each night during the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days – Israelis of all ages and from all walks of life who are eager to experience, or at least learn more about, this longstanding tradition of reciting penitential prayers and liturgy in the wee hours of the night.

A tour guide leading a group during a 'Selichot tour.'Credit: Michal Fattal

The growing popularity of these tours – almost to the point of a craze – is the latest sign of a newly kindled interest in Jewish traditions among secular Israelis, says Doron Yosha, who runs a company that specializes in tours of Jerusalem.  “Today, in Israeli society, we’re seeing this trend of going back to tradition, which has little to do with religious observance,” he says.

His company, Doron Tours, has organized 100 Selichot tours this year in the five weeks leading up to Yom Kippur, most of them completely booked in advance and each one accommodating about 30-40 people. “We're talking about a sort of hybrid tour,” he says. “These aren’t exactly sightseeing tours, nor are they pilgrimage tours. Rather, they’re a combination of the two.”

The Western Wall plaza during Selichot prayers, Sept. 2012.Credit: Michal Fattal

Selichot tours may be a bit of a misnomer, though, because generally participants don’t spend much time in synagogues, nor do they pray for repentance. Typically, the tours start at 9 or 10 at night, several hours before Selichot prayers are traditionally recited and involve expeditions around the Old City that include stories about its ancient and more recent history.

According to tour operators active in this growing niche, these preambles are meant to build up the mood and put participants in a proper frame of mind before they observe the actual Selichot services that begin at midnight at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Sephardi Jews begin to recite the Selichot prayers at the start of the Jewish month of Elul, while Ashkenazim begin only on the Saturday night preceding Rosh Hashanah. The tradition of reciting the prayers late at night emerged out of a belief that God is more merciful during those hours.

“Any connection to Selichot was coincidental at best,” remarks Merav, a real estate agent from Tel Aviv who participated in a Selichot tour last week but requested that her full name not be published. “We heard a lot about the fighting that took place in Jerusalem in this war and that war, and when we finally arrived at the Kotel, the Western Wall where there were masses of people, I thought we’d be able to spend some time observing the Selichot services. But we were told that we had 20 minutes and then had to be back on the bus.”

Hillel Meyer, a Canadian-born tour guide from Tel Aviv who leads two Selichot tours a week, says the trend has caught on rapidly in recent years. “It used to be a kind of underground thing,” he notes. "You’d have little groups going to visit synagogues in Jerusalem, mainly in the Nahlaot neighborhood, and they were mainly made up of religious people. It wasn't advertised, and there was nothing commercial about it. What really interested people then was to be able to hear some of the old niggunim their grandparents used to sing. Now it’s become a huge trend, very much about the city of Jerusalem, and the whole Selichot aspect of it has become kind of secondary."

As the number of participants in these tours has grown, according to Meyer, the focus has shifted from the small synagogues of the Nahlaot neighborhood, which can no longer accommodate such huge crowds, to the landmark sites of the Old City. No less important a factor in this geographic shift has been a new law that prohibits noisemaking after 11 P.M. in Nahlaot, prompted by complaints from residents.

On a recent Thursday night, thousands of Israelis were huddled in groups outside Jaffa Gate, one of the main convening points for these tours, waiting to head out with their respective guides, many of whom were still on the phone with latecomers desperately searching for parking. In the adjacent neighborhoods of Mamilla and Yemin Moshe, where many of the tours start out, it was common to see groups gathered around tour guides playing Selichot tunes on MP3 players, as they regaled the crowds with stories about famous rabbis and their wise words.

As the groups made their way to the Western Wall, the final destination for many of the tours, another popular stop was the roof over the Arab shuk with its fabulous views of all four quarters of the Old City. At the Wall itself, there was barely room to move amid the masses of humanity standing under bright lights and reciting the prayers, as the sounds of the shofar wailed in the background.

“If you think this is bad,” remarked Arnon, our seasoned tour guide, “then just wait until the night before Yom Kippur eve. Forget about the Peace Now demonstration of 400,000. Forget about the cottage cheese demonstrations in Tel Aviv last summer. You haven't seen anything until you’ve seen what goes on here that night.”

Leslie Perlberg, a mother of three from Zichron Yaakov who describes herself as secular, spent last Thursday night on a Selichot tour with her husband and friends, in what she says has now become a tradition. “This was our second year going, and we’ve decided we’re going to do this every year now,” she says.

“First of all, it’s a great excuse for us to come to Jerusalem. Especially at this time of year, the air is so great here at night. But more than that, it helps remind us of the true meaning of this time of year. We tend to get so wrapped up in all the cooking, we forget about the spiritual side of these holidays,” she adds.

Perlberg and her group participated in a tour organized by Beit Shmuel, which is affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The Beit Shmuel tours, unlike many others, do stop in synagogues and end much later in the night. Moish Maoz, who guides many of these tours, says he prefers to start out by the Mahane Yehuda market, where participants fill up on freshly baked rolls, before meandering through the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim and from there to Nahlaot. His groups only get to the Old City at about 2 A.M.

“There was a time when people thought of this as only something religious people do, even something primitive,” says Maoz. “It’s hard to explain what happened, but today you’ve got dozens of tour companies operating Selichot tours.”

The price per participant can range from NIS 50 to NIS 100, depending on what’s included. Some have professional cantors who double as guides and sing the Selichot as participants make their way through the streets and alleys of the Old City. Others are led by professional actors who assume the roles of some of the city’s legendary gabbais, those who assist in running a synagogue. Some tours incorporate musical acts, while others focus on Jerusalem’s culinary delights.

The tour operators include entities as diverse as The Society for the Protection of Nature, The Western Wall Heritage Foundation and the City of David Tower Museum (which also offers the option of a sound-and-light show at the Citadel before the tour.) In addition to the commercial tours, many are led by teachers for their students and by rabbis for their congregants. There are also many Selichot-hoppers – especially those interested in doing the real thing – who prefer the DIY method.

“This is our fourth year doing this,” says Hanita Bril, the marketing director of the City of David Tower Museum. “In the past, we would hold the Selichot tours one night a week. Today we do them three nights a week, and very often we have three groups out there at once.”

For Bril, the popularity of the Selichot tours also reflects a change in the nature of tourism in Israel. “There’s no such a thing as plain sightseeing anymore,” she says. “Today, every tour needs to have a concept.”