Experiencing Yom Kippur

yomkippur1No amount of reading or hearing others’ accounts will ever give me what I need when I’m trying to learn something new.  Whenever possible I try to experience new things firsthand.  Interfaith activism is no exception.

I’ve been meaning to observe Yom Kippur for a couple years, but for a non-Jew it is extremely intimidating.  First of all, there’s a 26-hour complete fast which is grueling (even for a seasoned faster).  Then there’s a long, liturgy-heavy day that involves some very intense self-reflection requiring humility and atonement for sins (individual and communal).  From the outside it may sound pretty miserable–but for Jews it is considered a joyful time.  They are relieving themselves of the burden of their sins, purging their community of guilt and drawing as close to G-d as possible while here on earth.

As a Muslim, I know that there’s no way for me to ever truly understand the full meaning of Yom Kippur the way my Jewish friends do.  But this year I was determined to immerse myself in Jewish community and glean as much as I could from their holiest day of the year. Luckily I happen to know some amazing folks who kindly made time to share the meanings behind the services and prepare me for my observance.

I went to four Yom Kippur services–at three different communities (Conservative and Reform), and fasted for all 26 hours.  There was so much to absorb that I’m certain I’ll be thinking on it all for months to come.  But for the sake writing of a timely blog post, I’ll recount my experience chronologically here and try to give as much detail as I can.  I humbly apologize for any misinformation I might convey –any of my Jewish readers are welcome to leave a comment and correct me if they see something amiss.

I.  Kol Nidre (Conservative)

Kol Nidre is the opening service of Yom Kippur and it’s called that because it starts with a prayer that is called Kol Nidre.  This is a somber, melancholy sounding prayer and the service I attended had a piano and violin to accompany it, making it sound even more bittersweet.  (I was actually moved to tears during.)

This is what it sounds like:

After this opening we followed a liturgy that was in a book provided to all the congregants.  There was recitation in Hebrew and English, with some audience participation.  We prayed for forgiveness of our sins and during those parts people would tap their chests each time one of the sins were mentioned.

My good friend Yaira was seated next to me during the whole Kol Nidre service and was able to help explain things that were happening, for which I was grateful. Rabbi Rachel Kobrin (who led the service) gave a powerful ‘sermon’ about halfway through that was about the collective guilt we have as a society for fostering a culture of violence.  As a Muslim, it was thrilling for me to see such dynamic and powerful female leadership during formal religious services.  Rabbi Rachel did not mince words and the entire congregation grew very sober and reflective during her talk.  She spoke about Newtown, CT and about the root causes of the increased violence we are seeing–and she challenged her community to join her as she establishes a social activism initiative within the Selah congregation during the coming year.

The whole Kol Nidre lasted a couple hours.  I loved the interaction between the religious leaders, the enthusiasm with which they performed the service, and the selective use of music in different parts of the liturgy.  As a non-Jew, I also really appreciated that I was able to follow along with the book and that there were plenty of li-li-li parts requiring no special knowledge of Hebrew that I could sing along with.

II.  Memorial Service  (Reform)

yomkippur2I was home most of the next day, but around 4pm I went to a Memorial Service that was taking place in a Reform community.  My friend, Rabbi Susan Lippe invited me and I sat next to her and her parents.  This was a truly powerful service. By this point in the day I had been fasting for almost 20 hours and the memorial service is one that allows all the congregants to remember those they have lost in death.  The Rabbi read the names of people who had passed in the last year, too.

One member of the congregation got up and spoke about losing her mother to ovarian cancer and how she is honoring her by running the New York Marathon with her sister.  (A big part of Yom Kippur isn’t just about recognizing losses and mistakes, but about determining what to do about it going forward.)

One big notable: this particular congregation has a cantor with a voice that is the closest thing I can imagine to an angel’s voice.  It was so pure, clear and sweet — and the melodies she sang came from some ancient place deep in the history of the Jewish people.  I felt a kind of ecstatic pain listening to her throughout the service.

III.  Ne’ilah (Reform)

Ne’ilah is the final service of Yom Kippur.  I chose to stay for it at the Reform congregation even though I was planning to go to the same service later at the Conservative congregation–just to see how both do it.

The whole tone of the day suddenly seemed to lift and brighten when this service started. (And not just because we were *that* much closer to breaking the fast.)  Ne’ilah is about atonement, but it’s also about hope and forgiveness.  At the conclusion of this service the shofar was blown.  All the kids went up close to watch that part which I thought was really cute.

Then there was another very short service that was sort of like a Shabbat service.  I wasn’t exactly clear about that part–but I think it was sort of a transition service to bring everyone back to their earthly concerns after the spiritually intense Yom Kippur services.  And we were done!

IV.  Ne’ilah (Conservative)

I went over to the conservative congregation for another Ne’ilah service and sat by myself in one of the back rows, but soon my friend Amber spotted me and came and got me to sit with her and her family.

yomkippur3This congregation’s Ne’ilah followed the same basic liturgical flow as the last one I’d been to  but there were some marked differences.  There was no music besides just singing voices, although the leaders often drummed their hands on the table to keep a beat.

This congregation is led by Rabbi Neil Blumofe who is a real showman.  He led the prayers with great gusto and I was actually shocked that he had so much energy after a full day of fasting.  He and Rabbi Rachel Kobrin, along with a few others took turns leading the prayers, shared a beautiful sermon, and even though I was really, really, REALLY tired and thirsty at this point I stayed riveted the whole time.

During the final part of the service, the Ark (the storage place where the Torah scrolls are kept) is opened and left open and everyone stands for the whole time.   The place I was attending invited everyone to come down as the prayers were being recited and spend time in front of the ark.  This was very impressive to me.  The ark at this synagogue contained 3-4 large scrolls wrapped in white embroidered silk, with some beautiful silver finery (not sure exactly what it all was) and a huge crowd began to form while people took their turn standing in front of the Torah.  It appeared that people were touching some things (books, fringe, etc.) to the silk and kissing it but I didn’t have time to ask anyone about that.

I saw an old woman, tears running down her face, being helped up to stand there and then helped back down to her walker.  I saw a family of four walk up together and wrap their arms around each other, enjoying the special moment of spiritual communion.  It was a really moving thing to watch.

Before the shofar was sounded at this temple, everyone was invited to come down and crowd around the bemah.  We all went and wrapped arms around each other and the lights were lowered.  The final words of prayer were joyfully shouted out in union by everyone there.

I walked out of there feeling like I’d taken part in something wonderful.

Lessons Learned

I learned a few very important things during my observance of Yom Kippur:

1.  Everyone makes mistakes, but no one likes to admit it.  There is a great wisdom to working an annual Day of Atonement into your worship calendar.  It means that you acknowledge you WILL mess up and you WILL hurt people and there WILL be something you need to apologize and seek forgiveness for–from other people and from G-d.  I think of how many relationships are destroyed because of foolish pride and the inability of people to overcome it, to make amends and to admit their wrongs.  Family members can go for years holding grudges against the very people they should rely on…so why not just get it all out there once a year and move on?

2.  We can’t go through life pretending that we aren’t a part of something much bigger than ourselves.  As a faith community, we share collective guilt—but we also share the benefits from collective forgiveness.  We must be willing to lose at least part of our ego and belong to others who have at least some semblance of the same beliefs we do.  Yes, that may mean we are opening ourselves up to be challenged, judged or criticized by those who are spiritually immature—but that is nothing compared to the rich rewards we benefit from when we share our collective blessings with one another.

3.  The most effective way to learn about other religions is to go and be part of their worship.  There are intangible qualities to each tradition and each congregation within a tradition that can’t be understood without being there and experiencing them.

THANK YOU to Congregation Selah, Temple Beth Shalom, Congregation Agudas Achim, Rabbi Rachel Kobrin, Yaira Robinson, Amber Austen, Rabbi Susan Lippe, and Betsy Guinz Mark for being my guides during this special time.