The period of the chagim is one of the most beautiful times of year here in Israel. Judging by the large number of visitors converging on the country at this time, it seems that many would agree. The holiday spirit permeates the air for weeks before, and not just for the frum among us. Those who mark the holidays in some shape or form are in sync with the country. For better and for worse, non-urgent matters are put off until the period of “Acharei Hachagim,” after the holidays. In fact, on the day after Simchat Torah, the newspapers announce that “Acharei Hachagim” has arrived.
During the days leading up to Yom Kippur, visitors flock to the Kotel in droves to say Selichot. The light rail hours are extended to benefit the public going to the Kotel during Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah. Private cars are discouraged from entering the Old City and shuttles are provided from Park & Ride parking lots. The Jerusalem police step up security during this time. Checkpoints and crowd regulations are set up to safely route the public expected to arrive at the Kotel Plaza. The Old City is closed when the maximum number of allowed visitors is reached. When my family visited that week, we found that unlike the crowd we typically find at the Kotel, the visitors were predominantly Sephardim. Many did not appear to be outwardly religious, but they seemed to be very connected to their custom of saying Selichot at the Kotel. It was a beautiful thing to see. A man dressed in a white gown collected tips from the crowds that surrounded him as he blew a long shofar. In anticipation of the crowds that would visit during this time, one of the cafes at Mamilla printed up a special Selichot menu.
Besides spiritual preparation, there is much physical preparation before Yom Kippur as well. Some of the Kupot Cholim (health care providers) set up a 3-day hotline manned by rabbis, doctors, and pharmacists to answer all questions relating to Yom Kippur and medical issues, fasting, and medication. Ezrat Achim, a chesed organization in Beit Shemesh, distributes pre-measured “Mayim B’shiurim” bags containing the exact amount of water one is permitted to drink under certain circumstances according to Halachah to all neighborhoods.
On Erev Yom Kippur, residents of Beit Shemesh received a recorded message from the mayor of the city encouraging us to take a moment right before entering Yom Kippur to do a cheshbon hanefesh (taking stock of where we stand), to strive to daven, and to hope that this year we will be better than last year in terms of our family, our community, and our city. The mayor sent an English message to “those who have chosen to live in the State of Israel and make Beit Shemesh their home.”
The day of Yom Kippur in Israel is like nowhere else in the world. The country basically shuts down. Even those who are not religious often mark Yom Kippur in some way for traditional and cultural reasons and out of solidarity with the Jewish people. The majority of Israelis fast. Of those who eat, many will only do so in private. There is no public transportation and no broadcasting of radio or television. Because stores, restaurants, and attractions are closed, travel sites encourage tourists to buy food before Yom Kippur begins. For the most part, the roads are empty of cars with the exception of emergency vehicles. Even though driving on Yom Kippur is not illegal, most Israelis won’t drive on Yom Kippur out of respect for the day. For this reason, bicycle riding has become a popular Yom Kippur activity. Bike stores and repair shops report a sharp increase in business right before Yom Kippur. White shirts can be seen everywhere, including on those riding their bikes.
Ben Gurion Airport closes down with no incoming or outgoing flights starting at 2 p.m. on Erev Yom Kippur. In 2016, an Israeli family vacationing in the country of Georgia was involved in a tragic accident when their car plunged into a gorge in the mountainous region. Two children were killed and two other family members were seriously injured and needed to be brought back to Israel for life-saving medical treatment. VitalOne, an emergency medical transport organization, had to get authorization for a plane to depart from Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur. The flight required 6700 pounds of jet fuel. The fuel company manager himself had to come to the airport and fuel the jet personally. The flight took off to Tbilisi, Georgia, from a deserted airport on Yom Kippur night and returned with the injured in the morning. The only other people at the airport when they landed were the three Magen David Adom ambulances waiting to transport the injured to Hadassah Medical Center. Israel authorized this unusual flight as it was a true case of pikuach nefesh.
For the last three years, Rosh Yehudi, a not-for-profit organization that promotes Jewish identification, has been running Neilah services on the street at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv. After Neilah this year, Sivan Rahav Meir, a popular religious Israeli journalist, news reporter, and TV and radio anchor, described the services that were attended by thousands of people. She began by saying, “V’nomar, Wow!” (A take-off of “V’nomar, Amen,” which is said throughout Yom Kippur). She thought it might have been the biggest minyan in the country, but if it wasn’t, it was certainly the most exciting one. She said that halevai (if only it could be) we as Jews should be viewed the way those davening at Dizengoff were seen during that Neilah: all sectors of Israeli society close, united, and welcoming of each other. The two thousand siddurim which had been prepared for the event were all taken at the beginning of Neilah. Most people did not have a siddur to use and had to daven from the heart or by sharing with those standing next to them. Sivan stated with pride that this is who we really are and how we should be remembered and inscribed in the Book of Life.
Similarly, my cousin who lives in Tel Aviv describes the unusual experience of seeing the streets and the Ayalon Highway empty of cars every year as throngs head to the shuls for Neilah. The crowds at shul are supposedly typical of many secular neighborhoods in the country. These aren’t just the elderly who grew up in religious homes and now come for nostalgic reasons. Young and old arrive and are greeted with a hug and a siddur by members of the community who then find them an empty seat. Outside the shul, there are loads of people, mainly young couples with children (some with their bicycles), who have come to hear the shofar. They aren’t familiar with the traditional tunes that we sing, but even if they haven’t fasted, something in their soul pulls them to end the day of Yom Kippur with the sound of the shofar.
Sukkos is a week of spirituality, excitement, and fun. This year many had the opportunity to pick their own Esrogim from fields that were hefker due to Shmittah. During Chol HaMoed, there are festivals, concerts, and varied forms of entertainment all over the country, many of them free of charge. Tens of thousands gather every year to hear Birkat Kohanim at the Kotel. When walking the streets, one can hear the singing from Simchas Beis Hashoevas. It is a common site to see people spontaneously break into spirited singing and dancing of “V’samachta b’chagecha” in public areas. The President of Israel opens his sukkah to the public. He and his wife greet their guests, who are welcome to participate in free activities related to a theme. This year’s theme was Israeli agriculture. There was a parade in Bnei Brak honoring the farmers who had kept Shmittah this year. When my neighbor arrived at work on Tzom Gedaliah, the day after Rosh HaShanah, she was greeted with a horrible stench pervading the entire area. It turned out that the local farms had been fertilized the night before. The farmers did not waste a moment and were back working in their fields on Motzaei Rosh HaShanah.
On Motzaei Simchas Torah, there are hakafot shniyot (second hakafot) all over the country, one of them even taking place at Sheba Hospital. Some of them are broadcast live.
Now, with the chagim behind us, it’s time to get back to normal and return to routine. But hopefully, the positive memories of our experiences and the spiritual growth we achieved will last for a long time ahead. Wishing you all a healthy winter!