The year was 1973. The place was a northern kibbutz near the Galilee. The time was sundown, erev Yom Kippur.
The 40 non-Israeli families in the absorption center of the kibbutz gathered on the lawn near our apartment after dinner.
We represented many countries: Argentina, England, South Africa, France, Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden, Canada and the United States. The resident kibbutzniks were not observant, so we, the “foreigners,” decided to have our own Kol Nidre service.
After dinner, my then-husband, Roger, blew the shofar that we had brought with us, loudly summoning all the families from the merkaz klitah, or absorption center, located on the northern kibbutz, Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek. The service itself was conducted formally by an American who had studied to be a rabbi but became a therapist instead. He wore his tallit and yarmulke and read the prayers by candlelight. It was a beautiful sight.
A tall, handsome Englishman with a deep, rich voice that brought shivers to my spine sang the haunting Kol Nidre melody. It was the most thrilling Kol Nidre I had ever heard, and almost everyone else felt the same way. The sermon was delivered by a Swedish Jew who spoke about the plight of the Russian Jews who could not leave their country to come to America or Israel. That struck a somber note because all the families, no matter what country of origin, were aware of the problems that faced Russian Jews at the time. The formal part of the service ended with a young woman from Argentina singing a Hebrew song with a Spanish accent.
No one wanted to leave, so we lingered on the lawn long after dark — singing, talking, sharing stories of our lives either in broken English, hesitant English or another native tongue. We translated for one another through our children, who were all learning Hebrew and English if they were from a non-English speaking country.
We sang favorite Jewish songs we knew from our different countries of birth. The songs were familiar because they were sung either in Hebrew or Yiddish, two languages we recognized or understood. The songs became a bond we all shared. Before returning to our tiny apartment, our “rabbi” announced that Yom Kippur services would be held again the next day at sundown.
No one attended that service because early the next day, the Egyptians and Syrians ushered in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the most terrifying time of my life. We spent many nights in the underground miklat, or bomb shelter. The first night was the scariest. We were awakened in the middle of the night and I bumped my head on the wall next to the bed in my haste to throw on clothes and take our children to the shelter under our apartment.
During the day if sirens went off, we ran to a shelter. One afternoon, I ran to our apartment where our daughter was napping because I knew she would sleep through the sirens. Another day, a senior resident living on the kibbutz who said she had been through too many wars never bothered to go to the bomb shelter. My palpable fear was the exact opposite of her lack of fear.
We covered our apartment windows with black plastic and some of the permanent residents painted the windows of the dining room an opaque blue. At night, we walked to dinner in bleak darkness, carrying tiny flashlights to guide our way. A nearby kibbutz was bombed that first night, so these precautions were necessary because the danger was real.
During part of the war, we and other merkaz members slept in a larger shelter that had been converted to a club house for teens. Several days later, we returned to sleeping in our own beds with our children. With the cease-fire in place, we were back to our normal routine: Hebrew classes in the morning, work in the afternoon, dinner with our children in the evening.
We removed the black plastic from our apartment windows and life went on “as usual.” But sirens and whistles still make me jump because they remind me of that terrible time of war — my first and, I hope, the only one I have to experience.
For the rest of my life, I will always remember that Kol Nidre service and the bombing the next day. While I carry a fear of war from that night, more powerful is the feeling of community I experienced sitting on the lawn, singing and praying in our biblical language halfway around the world with Jews from all points on the globe.
To this day, Kol Nidre remains my favorite service. It was certainly a different kind of Yom Kippur — and one I will never forget.
Ellen Sue Spicer-Jacobson, an author, teacher and natural foods cook, lives in Bala Cynwyd.