The Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year, begins at sundown Tuesday. For some people, avoiding work and technology as prescribed is simply impractical, but they embrace the spirit of the day in other ways.
Yom Kippur is a very personal celebration for many Jewish people, and some young Jewish adults have adopted their own ways of observing the Day of Atonement.
This year the holiday will be celebrated from sunset Tuesday through Wednesday night. It is the holiest day of the Jewish year, marked on the 10th day of the Jewish month Tishrei. Traditionally, Yom Kippur is observed by refraining from work, participating in a 25-hour fast and attending multiple synagogue services. Through fasting and prayer, Jewish people repent their sins of the past year.
Tanya Fink, 25, is a resident of Seattle’s Moishe house, which hosts events for young Jewish professionals. She identifies as Reform Jewish and describes her faith as a different form of traditional Orthodox Judaism.
“The trend for younger Jews is taking their own personal approach to Yom Kippur,” Fink said. “ … We have jobs and school that we can’t always get out of so it puts pressure on us to find meaningful ways to celebrate it in a personal way.”
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Fink reflects on her mistakes and relationships over the past year. She also thinks about social-justice issues and how she can do her part to encourage change in the coming year.
“I’m not as concerned with spending the whole day in synagogue — that’s not as meaningful for me,” Fink said. “The words that come out of my mouth don’t have to be the exact Hebrew words that my ancestors said.”
In the 10 days leading up to Yom Kippur, Fink subscribes to a website called “Do You 10Q” that sends her a question to reflect upon each day. A big part of her reflection during Yom Kippur stems from the website’s questions: How would you like to improve yourself and your life next year? Describe an event in the world that has impacted you this year. What is a fear that you have and how has it limited you?
Fink also participates in Tashlich, which means to “cast off” in Hebrew. She does this anytime between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Those who do this toss bread, like Fink did last year in Lake Washington, or bird seed into a body of water to physically represent casting off regrets. She also fasts and tries to wear white, which is a traditional custom.
“The fast is definitely meaningful to me. It makes you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself and connects you with all Jewish people around the world,” Fink said.
For busy college students, it can be difficult to take off the entire day. Lee Segal, 20, is a junior at the University of Washington and identifies as Reform Jewish. She participates in the fast and goes to synagogue services for the beginning and end of the holiday.
“Technically, you’re not supposed to use technology or drive, you’re only supposed to sit and think all day, but as a student I can’t do that,” Segal said.
Every year, she reflects by writing down three things she is most sorry for and how she can change them. This is her way of asking for forgiveness and improving in the new year.
Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Seattle offers daily reflection exercises on its website and encourages young Jewish people to think about what is important this time of year.
“I think that younger people and younger generations are looking for a refreshed meaning in the holidays and not (just) celebrating them because that’s what’s always been done,” said Rachel Sofferin, interim executive director at Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue.
Sofferin encourages mindful eating and journaling as a good place to begin to find meaning in the holiday.
There is a strong community focus on Yom Kippur. Young adults with busy schedules are encouraged to spend time with their community and pray or reflect together. With a number of services offered throughout the day, everyone is encouraged to attend synagogue when they can.
“It is the one holiday of the year where it is really a community holiday,” said Carol Benedick, executive director at Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle. “If there are young people that can’t make it to the synagogue, then they find a group because it isn’t about being alone.”
Not all young Jewish adults stray from tradition. Nathan Wasserman, 24, also lives in Seattle’s Moishe House and identifies as modern Orthodox Jewish. Wasserman describes his celebration of the holiday as very traditional, which is how he grew up celebrating. He fasts and attends synagogue services throughout the day. He also sticks to tradition by taking the day off from work, refraining from wearing leather, washing and using lotions or perfumes as not to show wealth.
“It’s the single most important day on the Jewish calendar,” Wasserman said. “It’s about asking for forgiveness.”