The “synagogue” was informal even by Israeli standards — several rows of chairs in a courtyard with a Torah scroll at the front. Several women wore jeans and though it was the middle of neilah, the Yom Kippur service when people normally stand throughout, most of the congregation was sitting down.
This service in Zichron Yaakov, south of Haifa, was one of 170 run along similar, relaxed lines nationally.
Although it may not sound like it, it was a scrupulously Orthodox affair. The special services are run by Tzohar, a modern Orthodox group that is determined to make religious life accessible to secular Israelis without the expectation that they will become observant.
“Our goal is to help secular Israelis feel less alienated when it comes to religious practice,” said Tzohar chairman Rabbi David Stav.
He noted that even though many secular Israelis fast, many of them see the synagogue as a no-go area.
As well as finding synagogues crowded and finding it difficult to follow the service, “the synagogue symbolises the religious establishment — something they oppose”.
Tzohar’s strategy is that, if secular Israelis will not go to synagogue, they must take synagogues of sorts to them. The Zichron Yaakov service at a communal courtyard was typical in using a space other than a synagogue. Many services were held in schools or community centres.
The venues even included several secular kibbutzim where just a decade or two ago the common way to mark Yom Kippur was a barbecue.
According to Tzafrir ShemTov, a resident of Kibbutz Einat in central Israel, “For years I dreamed of being able to pray on Yom Kippur joined by my son and grandson but never had found the proper environment within the more traditional Israeli religious circles. Tzohar enables us to embrace our Judaism in a setting that we can truly enjoy and feel attached to.”
With its Yom Kippur programme, Praying Together, Tzohar has tapped a demand. It launched as a small venture 10 years ago, and by 2003 was attracting 18,000 people. This year the figure was 40,000.
Tzohar makes a special effort to provide services for the Jewish demographic least interested in Judaism, immigrants from the former Soviet Union. All of its services were explanatory, and one in 10 explanations were given in Russian.
While some Israeli synagogues charge for a seat on Yom Kippur, Tzohar’s services are free of charge, run by volunteers — 500 rabbis, yeshivah and seminary students, and young couples recruited by Tzohar. They distribute prayer books, produced especially for these services, that are designed to guide the uninitiated, using pictures of a chair or a person upright next to most prayers so people know whether it is tradition to sit or stand.