Sec­u­lar flock to hol­i­day ser­vices

The Jewish Chronicle - - World News - BY NATHAN JEF­FAY HAIFA

THE “SYN­A­GOGUE” was in­for­mal even by Is­raeli stan­dards — sev­eral rows of chairs in a court­yard with a To­rah scroll at the front. Sev­eral women wore jeans and though it was the mid­dle of neilah, the Yom Kip­pur ser­vice when peo­ple nor­mally stand through­out, most of the con­gre­ga­tion was sit­ting down.

This ser­vice in Zichron Yaakov, south of Haifa, was one of 170 run along sim­i­lar, re­laxed lines na­tion­ally.

Al­though it may not sound like it, it was a scrupu­lously Or­tho­dox af­fair. The spe­cial ser­vices are run by Tzo­har, a mod­ern Or­tho­dox group that is de­ter­mined to make re­li­gious life ac­ces­si­ble to sec­u­lar Is­raelis without the ex­pec­ta­tion that they will be­come ob­ser­vant.

“Our goal is to help sec­u­lar Is­raelis feel less alien­ated when it comes to re­li­gious prac­tice,” said Tzo­har chair­man Rabbi David Stav.

He noted that even though many sec­u­lar Is­raelis fast, many of them see the syn­a­gogue as a no-go area.

As well as find­ing syn­a­gogues crowded and find­ing it dif­fi­cult to fol­low the ser­vice, “the syn­a­gogue sym­bol­ises the re­li­gious es­tab­lish­ment — some­thing they op­pose”.

Tzo­har’s strat­egy is that, if sec­u­lar Is­raelis will not go to syn­a­gogue, they must take syn­a­gogues of sorts to them. The Zichron Yaakov ser­vice at a com­mu­nal court­yard was typ­i­cal in us­ing a space other than a syn­a­gogue. Many ser­vices were held in schools or com­mu­nity cen­tres.

The venues even in­cluded sev­eral sec­u­lar kib­butzim where just a decade or two ago the com­mon way to mark Yom Kip­pur was a bar­be­cue.

Ac­cord­ing to Tzafrir Shem­Tov, a res­i­dent of Kib­butz Ei­nat in cen­tral Is­rael, “For years I dreamed of be­ing able to pray on Yom Kip­pur joined by my son and grand­son but never had found the proper en­vi­ron­ment within the more tra­di­tional Is­raeli re­li­gious cir­cles. Tzo- har en­ables us to em­brace our Ju­daism in a set­ting that we can truly en­joy and feel at­tached to.”

With its Yom Kip­pur pro­gramme, Pray­ing To­gether, Tzo­har has tapped a de­mand. It launched as a small ven­ture 10 years ago, and by 2003 was at­tract­ing 18,000 peo­ple. This year the fig­ure was 40,000.

Tzo­har makes a spe­cial ef­fort to pro­vide ser­vices for the Jewish de­mo­graphic least in­ter­ested in Ju­daism, im­mi­grants from the for­mer Soviet Union. All of its ser­vices were ex­plana­tory, and one in 10 explanations were given in Rus­sian.

While some Is­raeli syn­a­gogues charge for a seat on Yom Kip­pur, Tzo­har’s ser­vices are free of charge, run by vol­un­teers — 500 rab­bis, yeshivah and sem­i­nary stu­dents, and young cou­ples re­cruited by Tzo­har. They dis­trib­ute prayer books, pro­duced es­pe­cially for th­ese ser­vices, that are de­signed to guide the unini­ti­ated, us­ing pic­tures of a chair or a per­son upright next to most pray­ers so peo­ple know whether it is tra­di­tion to sit or stand.

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