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Israelis mark Yom Kippur under lockdown

Tania Krämer
September 28, 2020

Every year for the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, Israel closes down. With a nationwide lockdown and coronavirus cases soaring, this year's holiday is different from any other.

Israel Jerusalem | Coronavirus | Yom Kippur
Image: Ariel Schalit/AP Photo/picture alliance

Every year, Israel comes to a standstill during the Jewish Holiday of Yom Kippur. The airport closes, businesses and shops shut their doors, and TV and radio stations stop broadcasting. It's considered to be the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar, also known as the Day of Atonement, when people fast and ask for forgiveness and repentance.

This year, the holiday will be observed under a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Over a week ago, and on the eve of the Jewish New Year, the Israeli cabinet approved the general lockdown and tightened restrictions on commercial activities, freedom of movement and on worship this week.

This year, Yom Kippur starts at sunset on Sunday night and ends at sunset on Monday evening. It is traditionally observed with a day-long fast, continued prayer and several special services held at synagogues. But on this Yom Kippur, Rabbi Bob Carroll won't attend any prayer service at his synagogue.

An Israeli soldier and ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray ahead of Yom Kippur at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's old city.
While synagogues are allowed to stay open on Yom Kippur, prayer services will be limited in line with strict social distancing rules.Image: Ariel Schalit/AP Photo/picture alliance

Read more: Israel's second coronavirus lockdown sows division

"I have always believed as an Orthodox Jew and as a mystic, that God is literally everywhere and that He hears the voice of every person wherever we are," he says on the phone from Jerusalem, where he is preparing some texts to study during the afternoon of Yom Kippur with his wife at home. 

While synagogues are allowed to stay open on Yom Kippur, prayer services will be limited in line with strict social distancing rules. Many health experts and politicians, among them prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have urged citizens to stay at home and pray outside. However, it remains unclear if all religious communities will adhere to the rules.

"My position has been all along the pandemic, that people should pray alone. I kind of don't really understand Jews who say that God insists that they be inside a building with a bunch of other people right now," adding that he is glad that many rabbis have called to avoid praying in closed spaces. "We'll be praying privately and we'll be having all of Israel and all the Jewish people in all the world in our hearts and in our minds", Rabbi Carroll concludes.

Read more: Coronavirus: Israel tightens second lockdown

Most sacred holiday in the calendar

Many secular Israelis who may not necessarily observe other holidays do honor Yom Kippur. Most also agree that this year's holiday is unlike any other, with two nationwide lockdowns imposed within six months, while infections increase, most recently to 8,000 cases per day. Israel is currently one of the countries with the highest infection rates per capita in the world — and all this comes in addition to the current political turbulence and protests plaguing the country.

Niv Adi, who lives in a kibbutz in northern Israel, is mostly worried about the general state of politics in the country. "The connection I find with Yom Kippur today is that it is a sad day as it was in 1973. We were in the worst place since the establishment of the state, and we are in the same position in 2020", he says, referring to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel on Yom Kippur.

"The reason is the current political situation, especially the loss of control by the leadership operating under a prime minister who is suspected of three serious [corruption] charges, and decisions that seem to be made solely from narrow political interests." Adi says he is particularly concerned by the government's attempts to set limits to the right to demonstrate because of the pandemic. In the days leading up to Yom Kippur before the latest restrictions were imposed, these government-mandated limits sparked fierce political debate over indoor prayers and outdoor demonstrations.

An empty street in Jerusalem over Yom Kippur, in the midst of the coronavirus lockdown.
Israel has tightened its second lockdown as COVID-19 cases continue to rise. Image: Tania Krämer/DW

Read moreIsraelis vent anger outside Netanyahu's home after bid to curb protests

Debate over right to demonstrate during lockdown

In recent months, thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets calling on Netanyahu to resign. They protested over his trial on several corruption charges, the perceived failure of the government in handling the coronavirus crisis, and the resulting economic fallout. Prime Minister Netanyahu and other government officials had previously referred to the protests as a public health risk. Nevertheless, on Saturday thousands of Israelis demonstrated again across the country, adhering to social distancing.

In the spirit of Yom Kippur, some political commentators suggested that the prime minister asks for atonement. According to a recent opinion poll, only 27% of Israelis now trust the prime minister's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. In a video message on Saturday, Netanyahu acknowledged that mistakes have been made by decision-makers in opening certain sectors too soon after the first lockdown in April. But that might have seemed too little and too late for some, as protesters were out again on the same day, as the coronavirus continues to grip the country.