What's an LA Jew to do on Yom Kippur if they don't go to synagogue?

Deborah Netburn, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Lifestyles

LOS ANGELES — Yom Kippur is a complicated day for Miriam Bar-Zemer.

The Jewish holiday, which begins this year on the evening of Sept. 24, is considered the holiest day of the year — a time of deep introspection, fasting and repentance, which Jews have traditionally honored by spending the day in synagogue in a collective act of prayer, meditation and atonement.

But for Bar-Zemer, a 29-year-old graduate student who was born in Israel and grew up fairly secular in Los Angeles, deciding what to do on that day is an annual challenge. Her family didn't belong to a synagogue for most of her childhood, and now as an adult it's not a space that she finds conducive to self-reflection. Her father fasts, and some years she does too, but she feels like fasting in isolation misses the point. At the same time, eating normally doesn't seem right either.

"I feel like it being the most important holiday, I'm obligated to recognize it, but then I struggle to meld the tradition with my own interpretation of what it means to feel redemption," she said. "It's a confusing day."

She's not alone.

Of the more than 564,000 people who identify as Jewish in L.A., roughly half said they intended to attend Yom Kippur services at a synagogue, according to a 2021 study by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. While some of the remaining half treat Yom Kippur as just another day, others like Bar-Zemer feel a need to do something to honor the holiday, even if they aren't sure what an authentic recognition of this time looks like. Others have come up with their own ways to make meaning.


Even for many non-religious Jews, Yom Kippur addresses a fundamental need, said Rabbi Tarlan Rabizadeh, vice president for Jewish engagement at American Jewish University.

"We've got this one day to really wrestle and go deep," she said. "It's like it's in our DNA."

There are some people (mostly rabbis) who will tell you that Yom Kippur is their favorite holiday of the year, but for many Jewish people it's a challenging day. In addition to the 25-hour fast — no food or water from sundown to the next day's sunset — traditional services last for hours, involve more standing than usual, and are repetitive by design. You're also supposed to spend the day taking an honest and unflinching look at yourself and your actions over the past year, acknowledging the ways in which you hurt others, hurt yourself, did not live up to your ideals or otherwise missed the mark.

"We find lots of ways to hide from our brokenness during the year," said Rabbi Joel Nickerson of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. "This is the one day to focus on your brokenness, and you're supposed to do it in the presence of other people. It's a double layer of vulnerability."


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