An Improvised Family: Yom Kippur with Rome’s Progressive Jews

Normally people do not go to Rome to refrain from eating. But it was Yom Kippur, and I was on my way to afternoon services at Beth Hillel, Rome’s new progressive Jewish community.

My long walk to the Beth Hillel service on the Janiculum Hill started on the banks of the Tiber River. In Piazza Navona the tourist lunch spots were open, teasing me with garlic ropes, spaghetti strands, bufala cheese and fresh tomatoes. Steeling my hollow stomach and gnawing thirst, I traversed the Campo dei Fiori vegetable market and entered the historic Jewish quarter. There loomed Tempio Maggiore, the massive, elaborate synagogue at the heart of Rome, less than a mile from the Vatican.

This isn’t my synagogue. A few years ago I had tried to attend but it wasn’t where I belonged, behind a mechitza or up on a balcony, not allowed as a woman to don a prayer shawl or participate in services, unconvinced that Jewish women should be spiritually fulfilled by the mitzvah of running a Jewish home. 

When I arrived at the Gran Hotel Gianicolo for the Yom Kippur afternoon study session at Beth Hillel, the learning had just started. We read a section of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath, discussing the architecture of time and how Judaism sanctifies time by compartmentalizing it. The Sabbath contours a week by offering an oasis of rest and reflection. Jewish denominations also shape themselves according to ideas about how to relate to time, to modernity and to the past. They debate whether Jewish tradition can open to allow all Jews–regardless of gender and sexual identity–access to the tradition.

Beth Hillel’s answer is a resounding yes.

For the service we used Preghiere del Giorno di Espiazione, Secondo il Rito Italiano. A young man in his mid-twenties was called to the Torah to say a blessing before the reading. The rabbi stood talking to the young man in a low voice, then turned to the congregation. “This is this young man’s first Aliyah.” The congregation murmured in support. The next Aliyah was delivered by an older woman. “I’d like you all to know,” the Rabbi said, “that this is her first Aliyah too. In all these years she has never been so close to a Torah scroll. And that is why Beth Hillel is so important. It offers access to the tradition.”

This was a first for them and a first for the Beth Hillel community as a whole. The rabbi recited the Shechecheyanu, the blessing over new and unusual things:  Blessed are You, O God, for giving us life, sustaining us and allowing us to reach this joyous occasion. The couple in the row next to me blinked back their tears. My new American friend behind me was attending her first Roman Yom Kippur service in 15 years because Beth Hillel finally exists. Shechecheyanu indeed.

The Haftorah portion of Jonah was read by three children in Italian, one a girl: another thing we would not find in the orthodox synagogue, where females of all ages cannot approach the bimah. The commentary, in that same spirit, was delivered by a woman in a tone both feisty and scholarly.

I was the only woman in the room draped in a prayer shawl, in orthodox synagogues a ritual reserved for men. I felt self conscious. Was I doing something too far outside the Beth Hillel community norm? After the women and girls made their contributions I relaxed and pulled my prayer shawl into a tighter hug around my shoulders. I wanted to be wrapped in the prayers. I was welcome here.

An Italian man sang the Roman nusach for the standing Amidah. His voice was soft, melodious, comforting. We swayed together. It was the point of the day where hunger, thirst, and fatigue collide and intensify, yet there are still a few standing hours ahead. The Al Chet confession of sins, recited ten times over the course of Yom Kippur, culminate just as the service becomes physically stressful. This tension leads to an intensity and desperation in the recitation. Together we implore expiation from ourselves, each other, and the eternal, for all the ways we have stumbled this year. We prayed together, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.

Toward the end of the service there was a family blessing. It was traditional, the rabbi said, for family members to gather close under a prayer shawl and say the blessing together. It is a moment of embodiment of Judaism, families embracing each other to express gratitude and awe under the eaves of the Jewish tradition.

I had seen this only once before, in a Roman orthodox synagogue. I remember that moment clearly because it was awful. I had stood alone in wrenching solitude while the Roman members of the service, familiar to each other but unresponsive to me, had clustered under their shawls while I waited in agony for the blessing to end, to stop reminding me of my loneliness. Nobody should stand alone in such a moment, isolated near others being together, blessed and befriended.

This year at Beth Hillel was different. I had still attended the service alone. I didn’t have any family with me. But at Beth Hillel I had started to connect to people. I beckoned a familiar American press agent to my side. Together we saw an Israeli gentleman who was alone at the service and waved him over to join us. I offered my prayer shawl as the shelter for our impromptu family, a prayer shawl I would not have been able to wear at any other service in Rome. I sensed under this little tent our collective relief that we weren’t on the outside of the gathering of family trees, looking in at other people as they were accompanied and embraced.

The Yom Kippur service with the new progressive Roman Jewish community gave me more in a week than the orthodox community had offered me in a summer of sitting behind a mechitza and trying to make friends on the women’s side. On Yom Kippur, Beth Hillel gave me a temporary family and we sheltered ourselves together under a prayer shawl I have donned for decades wherever women are allowed to don them. 

The service ended with the Havdalah niggun, children lighting a braided candle and people sniffing the spicy freshness of rosemary leaves. We broke our fast together with San Pellegrino sparkling water and fresh fruits, looking forward to the abundance of the fall harvest festival, warmed by the newness that Beth Hillel’s new year has already brought.

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