Yom Kippur is a time when it’s comforting to be in familiar surroundings, in a synagogue that you like, with family and friends by your side. That’s because you can use all the support you can muster to fulfill the demanding rituals: fasting for 25 hours, pondering and asking forgiveness for your sins and, if you’ve lost a parent, saying an intense prayer to remember mom and/or dad.
Even the name of the Jewish High Holiday is a bit daunting: It’s Hebrew for “Day of Atonement.”
But last year, I found myself alone with my thoughts in a room full of strangers in a place I’d never been before. And it turned out to be an especially meaningful holiday.
Service in a Classroom
My granddaughter was born in Utah a week before Yom Kippur. My wife and I left our home in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and flew out on the eve of the holiday.
I wanted to go to services — from the time when I was a little kid, I’d always gone. But where to go? My daughter and son-in-law live in a town with zero synagogues. I did a little Googling and found that the Chabad movement, a very Orthodox (read: traditional) brand of Judaism, was holding free services in the library in Park City, about a half-hour drive away.
So off I went on Yom Kippur morning to a stately brick building that was once the town high school. The attendant at the desk looked at me as if I were loony when I asked about the Yom Kippur service. But then a light bulb went off and she directed me to a classroom, where I found two young men from Chabad who were leading the service; one Torah and one other worshiper.
In that unfamiliar setting, I felt adrift, since I truly knew no one and Orthodox Judaism is not the branch I feel most comfortable with for a variety of reasons, including the separation of sexes with a mechitzah, or partition, in synagogue.
And I was a little bit self-conscious. There was no way to slip into the background in such an intimate setting.
Among Other ‘Lost Souls’
My mind began to wander as other worshipers arrived: an older man with an Israeli accent, a millennial in a handsome sweater. Who were these other seemingly lost souls who had no place to pray but at a library in Park City?
Yet in the end, my thoughts turned inward. I thought deeply about the words of the prayers and how I’d strayed from the path over the past year. When I struck my breast as I read the “confession” of sins — repeated the prayer that lists the sins we all commit (“having a hard heart, harsh speech, jealousy” and so many more) — I felt as if I were speaking directly to a divine power. And honestly, I’m an agnostic. Maybe it was the mountain air. Or the hunger pangs. Or simply a spiritual moment.
But the service gave me more than spirituality. The rabbi leading the service told two stories that made an impression.
Addressing a Yom Kippur Audience of One
The first one was a story within a story. It was about an Israeli Jew who loved his synagogue so much and couldn’t wait to pray there on Yom Kippur, but ended up stranded in Germany. He went to a synagogue in Frankfurt and was immensely moved by the way the cantor sang the Kol Nidre prayer that opens the Yom Kippur service and means “all vows.”
The cantor then told this Israeli a story about why he sang the way he sang. Once a Russian Jew came to the synagogue just after Yom Kippur had ended. The synagogue was being locked up. The Russian was puzzled: “Why are you closing up shop just as the holiday begins?” Turns out he had his days mixed up. The cantor said he would sing Kol Nidre to this late arrival and so he did, singing not for an audience of hundreds, but for one Jewish soul.
So the moral of the story is twofold: You can love the synagogue you belong to, but you’ll never know what you might find if you end up someplace else. (Like, oh, a Chabad service in Park City, Utah.) And also, it’s a message to religious leaders. Don’t scale up for a gigantic audience. Act as if you’re addressing an audience of one. This was exactly how the two Chabad service leaders did it. Humble and heartfelt.
A Lighter Moment
As for the other story, it was a joke about how modern Judaism tries to take away the challenges and struggles of observing the laws of the religion.
Here’s how it goes: One synagogue tells its members: “On Yom Kippur, if you’re hungry, no worries, we’ve got sandwiches, we’ve even got cheeseburgers for you” (which is doubly bad because the laws of kashruth say no mixing of milk and meat). Another synagogue boasts: “If you’re bored on Yom Kippur, we have touch screens at every seat so you can check your email and Google.” And if you go to the third synagogue on Yom Kippur, you’ll see a sign: “Closed for the holidays!”
Ha, pretty funny! It was a welcome reminder than even on the holiest day of the year, a time of profound reflection and soul-searching, it’s okay to make time for a laugh.
Marc Silver is a blog editor at NPR and author of the book "Breast Cancer Husband: How To Help Your Wife (And Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment And Beyond."
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