High Holy Days services should reinforce our ties to Israel

The High Holy Days are time for personal reflection as well as recommitment to our purpose as a Jewish people. Bay Area synagogues attract tens of thousands of Jews, many of whom see this as the time when they wish to be with other Jews to experience connection and inspiration.

However, when it comes to affirmation of our positive, personal connection with Israel, many congregations shy away from including more than a perfunctory prayer for the state’s well-being. Some rabbis, in their sermons, may choose to castigate Israel for its treatment of Pales-tinians or expansion of settlements. This does not bring us closer to Israelis.

To reduce Israel to a political conflict, and not to see Israelis as people who are our partners in the great Jewish journey, demeans them, and ultimately us as well. One need not agree with all of Israel’s policies to express a kinship and love for the Israeli people. The High Holy Days may be when we can reach the most Jews to affirm our solidarity with Israelis. It is an opportunity that should not be missed.

At Congregation Kol Shofar, the rabbis and lay leadership have developed a new tradition — this is the third year — that reflects our love and engagement with the people of Israel as well as our core value of Relational Judaism, meaning we want to hear each other’s stories and experiences as a way to strengthen our congregational bonds to each other. 

Rabbi Michael Schwartz explains a memorial in Jerusalem during the East Bay Community Trip to Israel in April. photo/emma silvers

On Erev Yom Kippur, we invite a congregant to speak from the bimah on why he or she loves Israel — unprecedented in the Bay Area as a pro-Israel activity by a synagogue. This year Kayla Levy, a 17-year-old who just completed a five-month Israel education program, will speak about her intentions and connection to Israel and Israelis.

Senior Rabbi Susan Leider has enabled this to happen.  She believes that having a congregant, specifically a teen, speak about her deep love for and commitment to Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) is a part of the very fabric of who we are as a sacred community. She propounds that this profound relationship with Israelis and with the land makes a claim

on us —  that we engage in honest exchange, offer support, and immerse ourselves in Hebrew and in Israeli culture.  And most importantly, we should talk with our feet, and embrace being in Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel) as frequently as possible.

It does not happen only on the High Holy Days. Kol Shofar received a grant to hold a unique fair to teach school-age children about different ways they can go to and participate in Israel. Connections to Israel are built into our educational program at all levels. We also offer year-round Israel programming on culture, arts and politics — hosting the spectrum of opinion from J Street to StandWithUs — and actively support community events with other Jewish community organizations. We encourage Israel community activism and independent trips by members to Israel. There may be no congregation in the Bay Area that can claim as members as many Israel community leaders as we have across the whole spectrum of Israel engagement.

We see this as fundamental to our mission. We hope more congregations will be open to doing so.  Developing our solidarity with Israelis and the Jewish people year-round can strengthen our Jewish institutions, help shape our community, and enable more of us to be actively involved in our Jewish world. There is no better time to start than the High Holy Days.


Jeff Saperstein chairs the Bridges to Israel committee at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.