We are family, the secular, the religious and me …
Suddenly, everything, absolutely everything, has been thrown into 20/20 focus. Despite the moaning this past summer over judicial reform, the brutal attacks on Israelis that broke into the country’s Simchat Torah joy has brought it all back home. Despite our differences, we are one over here in the most intimate sense: life and death.
And yet, we had a taste of that oneness here in sleepy Pardes Hanna just a few weeks before.
The sun was beginning to set on Yom Kippur in Froggy Park and, as in years past, there were at least as many people gathered behind the massive tarp—with their kids, their dogs and their bicycles—as under it.
Rabbi Yossi Rifkind has been hosting outdoor Yom Kippur services here since arriving in town six years earlier as a freshly minted 25-year-old Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi. Home to some 44,000 souls from every corner of the Jewish world—Morocco, Ethiopia, the United States, Yemen, Britain and the former Soviet Union to name a few—Pardes Hanna had only one Chabad synagogue at the time, and it was on the other side of town. The young rabbi had a hunch that the growing Neve Asher neighborhood could use its own. But its usual Shabbat digs, a smallish preschool classroom, simply could not contain the Yom Kippur crowd. So the centrally located Gan Vial (dubbed “Froggy Park” in deference to its hideous cement amphibian) was an obvious choice.
Just like other years, the prayers were intermingled with the laughter of children on the playground. And just like those other years as Neilah, the closing service of this holiest of all days, began to build, so did the quiet gathering in the back.
At first, it was just one couple, followed by a grandfather, holding the hands of his grandchildren, then a few young women in jeans and T-shirts. Within minutes, the beyond-the-tarp congregation numbered more than 200, standing in mute attention awaiting the final wail of the shofar to mark the end of this solemn day—the Day of Atonement.
It was only the next morning that we learned that this moment hadn’t been quite as idyllic in several other outdoor services around Israel. Besides the widely publicized one in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square, disruptions, including several individuals pulling out scissors to cut up the mechitza (a partition, often made of fabric, separating men and women during prayer), were reported at a service in nearby Zichron Yaakov.
So why not Pardes Hanna? Why weren’t these final moments of Yom Kippur disrupted by protesters?
Was it the fact that the tattooed and multi-pierced man who asked to open the wooden ark holding the Torah was quickly given the honor?
Or that the rabbi tapped a couple of teens to round up all the empty chairs and carry them to the back so the newcomers had where to sit?
Was it the way the sound of the shofar ricocheted off the sliding board and jungle gym, the tile roofs of the surrounding houses, and, yes, off Froggy itself?
Or was it the fact that the rabbi, standing on a chair to be seen and heard by those in the back, invited everyone to a post-Simchat Torah party? (That celebration was canceled after missiles began flying into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip).
Or the apples, cake and bottled water set out for everyone breaking their 25-hour fast?
But maybe, just maybe, it was the story the rabbi told.
It turns out that an Israel Defense Forces commander who during the 1973 Yom Kippur War exactly 50 years earlier, seeing some 200 Egyptian tanks bearing down on his few dozen soldiers, stuck his hand out of the tank, only to have it blown off by enemy gunfire. Still, in nothing short of the miraculous, all but one of the soldiers inside that tank survived the day.
It was a story that had to touch the listeners deeply at this powerful moment when the gates closed on the Day of Atonement because, like most Israelis, they’re likely to have had a son or a brother or an uncle who’d lost a hand—or their life—in defense of this country. It was a story rendered all the more poignant in light of the local soldiers being buried here this week.
It was a story that rang out with a simple truth to all within earshot: We may dress differently and we may worship differently, but we are a family (a cranky one, to be sure) but a family nonetheless, united in our shared history and our shared destiny. Each and every loss one of us experiences is felt by us all, the losses we took a half-century ago and the ones today.
And yes, even here in idyllic Pardes Hanna, in the days following Yom Kippur, we saw an emotional exchange on the neighborhood Facebook page. It demonstrated that for all of the sweetness of that moment, we are not immune to the nation’s painful alienation between the more religious and the less so.
Because, yes, it’s been a year of polarization, ignited by governmental attempts at judicial reform and made all the more divisive of late by the recent Israeli Supreme Court ruling that local governments will now be empowered to decide whether to ban gender-specific activities in public places.
It’s little wonder that some of this pain and confusion bled through the local posts. From those who felt that they just couldn’t participate in the Yom Kippur service during this rancorous year to others who argued that “Dafka, because of the polarization and the hatred and the division we have around us, this yearly event was so beautiful, so unifying, so neighborly with so much community … .”
But there was also: “It was so pleasant in the open air without a feeling of judgment about our beliefs … it should be a good year for the entire Jewish nation, and we should be better and more tolerant.”
And this: “I stood in the back, not on the men’s side and not on the women’s side. Both those who were praying and the children who were playing allowed us to experience Yom Kippur in a new way … unity is the name of the story.”
Ultimately, peace won the day, with the page’s administrators rejecting an effort to ban posts announcing religious celebrations in the neighborhood. “For us, it has always been a status quo of good neighborliness that accepts a variety of populations,” they posted. “Events for children, events for adults, events for families, events on Shabbat and events for Shabbat observers. Not all are suitable for everyone. For us, not to allow this event to be published it would be cooperating with the division and it is the opposite of democracy.”
Of course, no one knows how the new court ruling and the ongoing pissing match over judicial reform (one that only hints at the poisonous underground eddies of resentment between the religious and the less so) will impact peace-loving Pardes Hannah and how next Yom Kippur will play out in Froggy Park.
But we do know that on that night, those in white shirts and black pants walked home through the quiet streets alongside their neighbors in T-shirts and jeans. Gmar hatimah tovah, they said to each other, blissfully ignorant of what was coming. “May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.”
And through our tears, together let us say “Amen.”