We were not a very religious family growing up in the Washington, DC area. In fact, for the first several years of my life, my family actually celebrated Christmas. I still remember the sad day my mother told me Santa Claus was not real. But then my parents realized they wanted me to have a Bar Mitzvah, so we joined a Conservative synagogue at age nine or ten. Out went Christmas, in came Chanukah, Pesach, the High Holidays and Shabbat. The Christmas/Chanukah trade off was difficult. How can you compete with Christmas in the US? Even though I don’t celebrate it, I still love the holiday, and love being in the US around the holiday.
I became a follower of Yeshua the Messiah at age 17 as a senior in high school. This was 1969, before the advent of the Messianic Jewish movement. So, like all good Jewish boys who believed at the time, I essentially converted to Christianity, although I knew something was missing. Later, through a series of different events, the Lord drew me to Messianic Judaism. I left my job on Capitol Hill and enrolled in a Messianic Jewish seminary. In 1990 our family moved to Richmond, Virginia, where I became the rabbi of Tikvat Israel Messianic Congregation.
Prior to this, our family (wife and three daughters) celebrated the Christian holidays. We still lit candles for Chanukah, joined my parents for Pesach and occasionally joined them for the High Holidays. The reality was, however, we were Christians. Now, as a rabbi of a Jewish congregation, that had to change, although the transition away from Christmas was still difficult for my wife and kids. For the first time, we enjoyed the Jewish holidays, especially as a congregation. I was rabbi there for 22 years, and we changed the way we celebrated different holidays over the years, but generally here’s how we did it: For Pesach, the congregation held family or chavurah seders on the first night. On the second night, we held a big community seder for the metropolitan area. These were wildly popular with both Jews and Christians. Our congregation loved to host them.
For Shavuot, we held a big picnic in the park and celebrated the day with special prayers. For the High Holidays, we held Erev Rosh HaShana and Rosh HaShana services. Then in the afternoon for Rosh HaShana we all gathered at a park on the James River for a Tashlich service, casting away our sins. I always thought it humorous that as we tossed the vicarious sins into the waters through bread crumbs, the ducks and swans would float over and gobble them up. I wonder what happened to those birds afterwards. Then, after a picnic in the park, for anyone who wanted to undergo tevilah (immersion) in the name of Yeshua, we would do it.
For Yom Kippur, we held the Kol Nidre service, where my wife (our worship leader) did an outstanding job with this difficult piece. The next day we held the morning service, followed by a study of the Book of Jonah by one of our elders. Later, a number of us would gather and travel to the other synagogues in the city and surreptitiously prayer walk around them. We then had a closing (Neilah service) with the final blow of the shofar. Finally, we’d gather downstairs for the break the fast dinner, a gallant affair, bless the wine and bread with the Lord’s supper, eat together and conclude with a blowing the shofar competition among the children.
For Sukkot, the congregation built a large sukkah in front of our synagogue, cooked hot dogs and hamburgers and ate under it the first night. Then, we’d all view a Jewish movie. On the Saturday evening during Sukkot, we’d have a huge community celebration with a Messianic Jewish entertainer. For Chanukah, we had a latkes cookoff and games for the kids after lighting the candles. Sometimes, we’d invite in an entertainer, like a balloon man or a magician.
Finally, for Purim, we’d read the Megillah in English, accompanied by groggers, stomping and cheering, and then conclude with a crazy play.
And, of course, for Shabbat, we held weekly two hour services on Saturday mornings, followed by a full lunch (Oneg) where people brought food and was served by the Oneg teams. Everyone loved Shabbat. The Oneg essentially prevented folks from going out and purchasing on Shabbat and greatly encouraged communal development. The holidays accomplished what they were intended to accomplish, i.e. to build a community’s identity through joyful participation.
Prior to moving to Israel about four years ago, I had been here for some of the holidays. The most impressive was Yom HaZikkaron (day of remembrance for fallen soldiers – not a religious holiday), where at two times during the day, sirens would blare, and everyone everywhere would stand quietly at attention, remembering the passing of fallen soldiers. Of course, on various tours we would hold services on Shabbat wherever we were, and was always impressed how the whole country observed the Shabbat. After moving here, however, my attitude changed.
I find the religious imposed observances to be burdensome and problematic. Much of the country is closed for Shabbat. In fact, most stores close by 2 PM on Friday, making erev Shabbat and Shabbat preparation crazy. Worse, for much of the country, there is no bus service on Shabbat. Unlike the US where cars and gasoline are relatively cheap, in Israel, both are very expensive, and many in the country do not have cars. It’s possible that the majority of the country relies upon public transportation. So, what happens if someone doesn’t have access to a car, but wants to travel to a service? They can’t, and this affects Messianic Jewish congregations, which unlike the Orthodox, are not on every street corner.
Yom Kippur is the worst. No one drives. Consequently, on the holiest day of the Jewish year, most Messianic Jews cannot attend services. We had one opportunity in our second year here where we joined with Jerusalem congregations who had booked Yad HaShmonah, a Messianic Jewish moshav. There hundreds of Messianic Jews were able to stay overnight in the housing and enjoy services. Because of high demand and limited space, we haven’t been able to attend since, so Yom Kippur is spent by ourselves in our home. We did attend an Orthodox service on our kibbutz the first year. I won’t again.
However, the worst experience was this year. I was hospitalized during the period of Rosh HaShana through Yom Kippur. This also included two to three regular Shabbats. Because everything essentially closes down for Shabbat and the holidays, my stay in the hospital was unnecessarily prolonged. There was no one to issue orders or issue my discharge or to do anything except maintain care. Honestly, I was infuriated, and sadly, the experience has caused me to resent the holidays because of the religiously imposed restrictions upon the country.
Israel is an amazing country, and for a young country, its progress is nothing short of a miracle. However, there is a desperate need to separate church and state. Personally, I want to again enjoy the Jewish holidays like I did for so many years. Without legal changes, this may be difficult.