Global Jewish Reflections | On Yom Kippur, Exploring the Meaning of Mutual Jewish Responsibility
Yom Kippur offers a chance to reflect on the ways Jews belong to each other and hold each other accountable, rabbinical student Sammy Kanter writes.
By Sammy Kanter - JDC-Weitzman Fellow | September 14, 2021
Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
As we approach Yom Kippur, rabbinical student Sammy Kanter thinks about the value of Jewish mutual responsibility, and what it means tohold each other accountable.
A few months ago, the Pew Research Center published a study that shed light on the American Jewish experience. One notable statistic found that a majority of Reform Jews felt they had little in common with Orthodox Jews, and vice versa. As a fourth-year Reform rabbinical student, this tension hits my chest each Yom Kippur. The Viddui, a confession of sin, is one of the core elements of the day. During the Viddui, we list the various ways we have strayed from the path over the past year. We also beat our chest with each sin, as if to wake our hearts to the need to find our way back to our best selves.
What makes me anxious about this section is that it’s entirely in the first-person plural. We falsify, we gossip, we hate, the short confession states. And “we have sinned against you, unwillingly and willingly,” the long confession reads. These lists are brutal, as they walk us through all the ways we might have made the wrong choices over the past year.
But why do we confess in the plural? I’m not perfect, and there are plenty of sins that really hit home. But some of them I didn’t do! Why do I need to confess for the guy sitting three rows behind me? And why do I have to ask forgiveness for a Jewish person halfway across the world who may have been arrogant or greedy? And as the Pew study underscores, why do I need to ask for atonement on behalf of an ultra-Orthodox Jew whose Judaism feels foreign to my own?
Rabbi Max Routtenberg wrote that the first-person plural reminds us of our responsibility for our actions. During the Viddui, we stand before God, the ultimate judge, and become vulnerable with ourselves about our shortcomings and how we can be better. Because this soul-bearing, scary reckoning occurs alongside our community, Rabbi Routtenberg sees this as a reminder that we are responsible for the entire Jewish people.
During my travels as a JDC-Weitzman Fellow, I developed a deep connection to, and responsibility for, other Jewish people. One of my Entwine experiences took me to Odessa, Ukraine, for the Pesach Project — an initiative that helps Reform communities in the former Soviet Union (FSU) lead seders and Passover experiences. When I first arrived in Odessa, I felt I didn’t have much in common with the local Jewish community I was meeting. We were separated by a language barrier, and I had a translator by my side for every interaction.
During my travels as a JDC-Weitzman Fellow, I developed a deep connection to, and responsibility for, other Jewish people.
But as we approached the seder, something began to shift. The community began to sing the same exact words my family back in Ohio sings each Passover. We ate the same food, in the same order. The next morning, we prayed the same Shabbat service. Suddenly, I felt these moments of ritual bind us together, despite our differences and the thousands of miles usually between us. I could only speak to the community through a translator, and yet these shared rituals forged a direct path between my soul and theirs. Tears welled in my eyes as I spoke to the Ukranian teen leaders who, like me, wanted every Jew to experience the magic of what our rituals and traditions have to offer. I left Odessa feeling like I had family there — and with a deeper connection to the Jewish people overall.
I am more than happy to walk alongside the Jews of Odessa in my Viddui. Many are Reform and secular, just like me. But it’s harder for me to extend this openness to other branches of my Jewish family. What about when we hear of Jews who’ve committed acts we find abhorrent? Why, then, does the Yom Kippur liturgy require that we ask for forgiveness for them alongside other Jews who may not stir up such complex feelings?
The challenge of this question, I believe, is the true work of Yom Kippur. Some Jews, like the Jews of Odessa, are easy to stand beside. Others are not. However, the machzor (High Holidays prayer book) says Anu Amecha, v’atah eloheinu: We are Your People, and You are our God. To be “a people” means that sometimes we must take responsibility, both spiritually and physically, for those we disagree with. If we want to feel those deep bonds of connection to the Jewish people in the holy moments — like what I accessed in Odesa — we must also feel a sense of shared accountability when the mark is missed.
After all, Yom Kippur is about teshuvah, or returning to the people we desire to be in the world. After listing our sins, we say, “Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” It is only when we take responsibility for all of our actions that the Jewish people can achieve the redemption we all seek.
Sammy Kanter is a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, where he is also a JDC-Weitzman Fellow and the Rabbinic Intern at IKAR. He has a certificate in nonprofit management from the Zelikow School at HUC. Prior to his studies, Sammy was the director of the Selma and Lawrence Ruben Center for 20s and 30s and Out at the J Programs at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan. Before that role, he brought to life the Becker Center for Networking and Mentoring at the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati, a groundbreaking initiative to reexamine how Jewish Cincinnati attracts, connects, and engages young adults.
A published writer, his opinion pieces have appeared in the Forward, Jerusalem Post, Cincinnati Enquirer, and eJewishphilanthropy.com. With a background in theatre, he most notably was the operations director of the largest multicultural festival in North America, the New York International Fringe Festival.
Sammy holds a B.S. in Journalism from the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. In his free time, you can find him teaching indoor cycling, singing show tunes, or catching up on podcasts!