As an introduction to Judaism, Yom Kippur would not be my first choice. Passover has the seder, a wonderful home ritual where we learn all about the Exodus from Egypt. On Shabbat we have joyful services at temple and Shabbat meals.
On Yom Kippur there is no food until the end of the day. We spend most of the day at services, and there is a lack of home rituals. The tone and melodies used strike a more somber note of hours spent in solemn self-reflection.
That said, Yom Kippur is probably the most well-attended service of the year, and as such is among the first Jewish service attended by our family members who are not Jewish.
Just think how foreign these services are for someone who did not grow up Jewish.
There is no similar Christian holiday in the fall. The tone is not joyous, and if the Hebrew isn’t difficult enough, the Aramaic will really trip you up! In the many hours of Hebrew singing, chanting, chest-tapping and related choreography there is only the rabbi’s sermon and some other talks in English to break up the day.
It is true that for many born Jews, the language and theology of Yom Kippur can also be a challenge. That said, most of us who grew up Jewish have a deep connection to and familiarity with Yom Kippur. The well-known melodies, such as Kol Nidre and Avinu Malkeinu, move us. They are easily recognizable, and most people sing along during these and many other points of the service. Many of us also have traditions of the break-fast as a major, fun holiday meal with family and friends. Even if we are not Torah scholars, we have a familiarity with Yom Kippur that we often take for granted.
Given how awkward Yom Kippur can potentially be for our family members who are not Jewish, we should tell then how much it means to us that they chose to join us for Yom Kippur services. We need to help make the day more familiar to them, point out elements of the service to them and share the break-fast meal with them. Most of all, we as a Jewish community need to recognize that simply showing up on Yom Kippur takes guts and demonstrates a desire to be with the Jewish community on the holiest day of the year. We born Jews have not always appreciated this fact, and even worse have look askance at non-Jews attending our services. For this, our process of teshuvah (repentance) is long over-due.
Gmar Hatima Tova – May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a happy and healthy New Year!
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