The windows of Blaustein Hall, which overlook the Old City of Jerusalem. HUC holds High Holy Day services as well as some shabbat services in this room every year. The picture really doesn't do justice to the view of the Old City or the ambiance of the room during services, but it gives you some idea of the "cool factor."
Yom Kippur in Israel is a totally different experience than in any other part of the world. The whole country stops to observe, even in the more secular areas like Tel Aviv. The handful of shops that are open on shabbat in Jerusalem are closed, and there are literally no cars on the streets. Children can and do ride their bikes and play games on normally busy streets and highways without fear of getting hurt. It's a bit eerie, especially when you come from the US, where life always feels like normal on Jewish holidays.
Sadly, I was not one of the kids riding my bike and playing games in the middle of the highway on YK. Steph and I hosted a student from Tel Aviv University who was in J'lem for the holiday, who was very sweet. She helped us prepare a quick "last supper" for our friends before the 25-hour fasting period began, where we made homemade lentil soup and friends brought potato burekas, tuna salad, and desserts. After dinner we had Kol Nidre services, in which we sing a melody to beg Gd to consider the promises and vows we made during the year null and void if we truly tried our best to achieve them and couldn't.
Yom Kippur morning services were lovely, though very hot (the windows let in a lot of sunlight.) My favorite part of the day was actually the Martyrdom and Yizkor (Remembrance) services. Eli and Rabbi Wilfond (AKA Gingy) created the Martyrdom service as a way to remember those Jews who died fighting for their rights to be Jewish. The service was comprised of readings in English and Hebrew that told the stories of the people who never had their own opportunity to tell them. It was a beautiful segue to the Yizkor service, where we remember those in our families and social circles who have passed on, particularly those who we've lost this past year. Gingy was the perfect leader for these services; he has a very gentle and sensitive approach to leading services and you could tell he put his heart and soul into remembering those we've lost. He's my favorite of all the rabbis here and I'm hoping to have the chance to really get to know him this year.
As special as YK is here in Israel, I didn't feel as though I got as much out of it as I do at home. I'm realizing what a challenge it is to be both a Jew and a Jewish leader at the same time. As Jewish leaders, we're responsible for both leading others in prayer and praying for ourselves at the same time. On one hand, it's easy to forget the meaning of the prayers and just sing the notes on the page; on the other, it's easy to want to forget the music and just pray. Cantors have to do both in order to be successful; we not only have to know the notes and rhythms, but connect to the text on a personal level. To add another layer, as a voice student (especially one who is learning to be confident as a singer again) I am thinking of the technical voice things I need to remember. I'm realizing that to be a cantor is to think of and do a billion things all at the same time. It's not easy, and can lead to insecurity. Is it right to be thinking of the things YOU need to do instead of the original purpose of doing them in the first place? It seems selfish to me, even though it really isn't, and it's something that all Jewish leaders struggle with, whether cantors or rabbis.
BTW, I'm not saying that reaching that magical combination never happens; if it didn't, I don't think any of us would be here now. It's those times that we do get it right, when everything clicks, that we can be spiritually confident both as Jews and as Jewish leaders.
I am now stepping off my soapbox. Love to everyone!