The Ayelet HaShachar (Morning Star) outreach organization ran special Rosh HaShanah prayer services over the three-day holiday in 12 secular communities, some of which have not seen traditional services in decades.
Ayelet HaShachar – Jewish Community Outreach, Education and Support – was founded by Rabbi Shlomo Raanan in 1997, and has been engaged since then in “reaching out from within.” Among its activities are sponsoring religious families who live in irreligious kibbutzim and villages, organizing thousands of telephone study-pairs (chavrutot) between religious and secular Jews, building synagogues in secular communities, sponsoring Torah programming and classes, and much more.
The current High Holiday season has seen a flurry of activity on the part of Ayelet HaShachar. It began with tours of pre-Rosh HaShanah selichot services throughout Jerusalem; dozens of people who had never seen such prayer services took part in each tour.
On Rosh HaShana itself, teams of religious families and youths set out for different irreligious kibbutzim and towns, where they were welcomed and given a place to sleep and eat. One group, for instance, spent the holiday in Bror Hayil, a Negev kibbutz near Sderot that was founded on May 5, 1948 - the last new Jewish community founded in the Land of Israel before the establishment of the State of Israel. It was founded by Jews from Egypt, absorbed many new immigrants from Brazil in the early 1950’s, and now has a population of over 500.
Moti Reich of Ayelet HaShachar told Arutz Sheva what happened this Rosh HaShanah in Bror Hayil: “We were two families and eight single men. We were told that 35 years ago, the large, beautiful synagogue at the entrance to the kibbutz was the focal point of the community, with 150 people frequenting it each Sabbath. However, over the course of the decades, the founders did not succeed in transmitting their religious feelings to the younger generation, and the synagogue fell into disuse… Thank G-d, this holiday we were able to bring some life back into it. Over the past two years, the kibbutzniks asked a Conservative group to help them run the holiday services, but this year they asked us to come instead… They have already told us that they want us to come back for Yom Kippur.”
Reich said that he and his friends provided the shofar-blower, the Torah reader, the prayer leader, and the song-singers from within the congregation. “Each of us sat next to two or three others, showing them the right pages, encouraging them to sing, and the like. It’s a very special privilege to be a part of something like this.”
Special Rosh HaShanah services of this type were also held in Zar’it (on the Lebanese border), Neot Golan, Abirim, Mitzpeh Hila (home to Gilad Shalit), Ramat HaKovesh, Yad Chana (a communist kibbutz), and elsewhere. Ayelet HaShachar is searching for dozens of volunteers to lead Yom Kippur services as well.
Encounters of this sort necessarily raise questions of “religious coercion” and “openness to those who are different.” A recent Ayelet HaShachar event at Kibbutz Nir Yitzchak in the northwestern Negev was the subject of an internal kibbutz debate, in the course of which some members said that they did not appreciate the “missionizing” of the religious visitors. Others responded, however, that “No one tried, even indirectly, to get me or my family to change our secular ways. They simply were showing us their customs and sharing them with us. These are customs that are centuries old and are connected with my nation, even if I am not religious… I do not accept the comparison with secular youths wearing immodest clothing in a religious town; one cannot compare a display of customs with a pre-meditated provocation…”
The Culture Coordinator of the event summed up as follows: “There were comments both pro and con… This event opened a window for dialogue and for checking whether there truly is pluralism here. We also hear different voices of those who want to meet our Jewish tradition, which is important and interesting.”
In Kibbutz Geva, after a Yom Kippur service organized by Ayelet HaShachar, several women said that they were truly excited and happily surprised to see that “the hareidim are not as scary as we thought” and that the services had been very inspiring to them. “I hope that this will be a beginning to a real synagogue in this community,” one native-born kibbutz woman said.
Another recent Ayelet HaShachar events was a Pidyon HaBen (Redemption of First-Born) for three generations at once – a grandfather, father and son, residents of Moshav Ein HaBesor in the Negev. Deputy Finance Minister Yitzchak Cohen, a Knesset Member of the Shas party, was the priest (kohen) who “redeemed” them.
Last week, at secular Kibbutz Beit Keshet in the Lower Galilee, the Sadovsky family – which has been living there for six years, courtesy of Ayelet HaShachar – announced that a synagogue had been dedicated in the kibbutz. The occasion was marked by the joyous introduction of a new Torah scroll. Religious Affairs Minister Yaakov Margi, also of Shas, was on hand to celebrate, as was Lower Galilee Regional Council head Moti Dotan, who called on Ayelet HaShachar to send more families to more towns in the area.