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A different and momentous Yom Kippur in downtown NY

Together with thousands of New York Jews who gathered near Zuccotti park on Erev Yom Kippur, Libby Lenkinski took part in a unique, spiritual occasion

By Libby Lenkinski

(photo: Joshua Stephens)

It is Yom Kippur 2011, and I get to say “I was there.” Visiting New York, I decided to forego the typical New York synagogue service and instead participated in a Kol Nidre service (the opening prayers for Yom Kippur) at the Occupy Wall Street site that a friend of mine organized. And it was a momentous occasion.

Thousands of New York Jews stood together in a circle around the red cube near Zuccatti park – in the center was a group of cantors who led the Kol Nidre service. They combined combined classic Ashkenazi prayer tunes with revival-style call and response sections. People of all ages, persuasions, races and genders attended, and I was awed.  Because I live in Israel, I have become accustomed to making the choice between religious and progressive, where progressive means secular. There is no option for a progressive expression of spiritual or religious Judaism for me. Certainly not one that also takes place within the context of a community. And certainly not a diverse community of Jewish activists.  Tonight I was there.

For those who weren’t in New York, here are some of the outstanding moments of the service, which I’d like to share:


  • Shehechiyanu

This prayer – about blessing the moment – was done in traditional Ashkenazi tone. More than anything else, while chanting this prayer, I looked toward the organizers, who looked to this crowd that they managed to amass and noticed the ricochet of appreciation bouncing back and forth marking this moment – when people challenged their routines and assumptions and did something different.


  • Aleinu

The cantors led this prayer, one that appears toward the end of Jewish services, in an unusual way. Participants were invited to shout out something that they were committing to for this year to make the world better,  then all those in the crowd who commit to the same thing called back in unison “aleinu.”  Some commitments that I remember:

I will stand up against those in power even when it is intimidating. Especially when it is intimidating.


I will work for health care for all.


We will hold ourselves accountable for the occupation of Palestine


I will challenge each and every assumption that enters my mind


I will call my mother



  • Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the year.

In a reading about why Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the year, I noticed the following: Because it is the day of forgiveness.

Because it forces you to be here, now.

At one point, the cantors offered five minutes for “other practices that you might like” before coming back together. People hugged. People chanted. People did a bit of yoga, tai-chi, meditation.

After the service, while chatting with friends, one woman said “but how do we harness this and do something with it?” My feeling, based on the Israeli summer is that the energy takes care of itself – and that movements grow and build themselves out of this energy without being “harnessed.” My hope on this Yom Kippur is that tonight’s Kol Nidrei was just the beginning, for Jews and for all people in this movement.

Libby Lenkinski is a Tel Aviv based human rights activist and works as the Director of International Relations at the Association for Civil rights in Israel (ACRI)

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    1. Louis

      But Libby there is in Israel progressive Jewish (religious) voices… they are there… need to flush them out and they are not always as politically progressive as we would like them… but at the same time we should also ask of many who took part at Occupy Wall St. how many of them leave their progressiveness at the door when Israel is the question… I am sure many in the closer circles would be as progressive on I/P as we are but in Israel the progressive Jewish community is one of those spaces of political and social expression that can be better befriended to help undermine the fanatic manipulations of the Jewish Narrative that permits racism, Occupation, ethnocracy, misogynistic religious practice and theo-fascism.

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    2. Rachelle Pachtman

      Great comment Louis.

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    3. Libby

      Thanks Louis. (Louis? Is that you?) I agree with everything that you’ve said – I think what was so refreshing about this particular experience was that to me it felt as though no one checked anything at the door. The commitments shouted out at “aleinu” were varied and received equal acknowledgement from the crowd – including a sense of accountability for the occupation but certainly not only that. Have a listen: http://www.beyondthepale.org/episode/2011/10/09

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    4. AYLA

      @LIBBY–thanks so much for this. I lived in NYC for ten years and now live in Israel. One thing that really saddens me here is the choice Israelis feel they have to make between traditional, religiously-based spirituality and humanity. That’s nuts. No wonder everyone goes to India. I get it, though–I’m imagining that had I grown up here, I’d feel the same way. It’s changing here, though! I want to invite you to check out Nava Tehila, a Renewal Judaism congregation in Jerusalem. They’re on facebook and have a website. The rabbi is Reb. Ruth Kagan. That’s right… And in case the whole thing sounds very American, Ruth Kagan is Israeli-born, as are well over half of the congregants.

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    5. Lee Diamond

      I attended a Shabbat service @ a progressive synagogue in Jerusalem. Rabbis For Human Rights took us there as part of our trip.

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