Every year, Yom Kippur services at Chabad of North Tel Aviv, especially the Kol Nidrei and Neilah prayers at the opening and close of the Day of Atonement, bring out crowds of between 300 to 400 people. Many of them are neighborhood residents who don’t usually attend synagogue services but find it important to make a moment of connection on Yom Kippur. Since the overflow crowd doesn’t fit inside the Chabad House, the service has been held in a nearby location outdoors.

Chabad’s outdoor Yom Kippur service has been a welcome and unifying tradition in North Tel Aviv. It began a few years before Covid when they outgrew their space. During the pandemic, all services were held outdoors, and attendance has grown every year since. This year, unfortunately, the beautiful event was marred when the worshippers—who draw from all religious backgrounds—were interrupted in their prayers by a group of noisy protesters objecting to the mechitzah at the site. While everyone attending the services was upset to some degree by the experience, they still carried on, with some even seeking out the good in the experience.

“Our Chabad House welcomes every kind of Tel Aviv Jew,” Esther Piekarski, co-director of the Chabad-Lubavitch of North Tel Aviv, told Chabad.org. “People come to pray with us because they know that we love them and welcome everyone as they are. Many don’t feel comfortable inside a shul, but they are happy that we have the outdoor prayers they can join.”

Esther Piekarski and her husband, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Piekarski, have directed Chabad of North Tel Aviv since 1980. In 2017, they were joined by their son, Rabbi Shneur Piekarski, and his wife, Leah. Their community is made up of a mix of Tel Aviv residents—from the observant to those who identify as secular—all of whom join together for classes, prayers and communal events.

The site Chabad had used in previous years was undergoing construction, so the Piekarskis worked to find a suitable location nearby and obtained a permit from the city for the outdoor venue far in advance of Yom Kippur. The chosen location was a public space within an area usually closed off to pedestrians.

Several weeks after their permit was obtained, the city of Tel Aviv announced that they would not be giving out new permits to host outdoor prayers if there would be a mechitzah partition between men and women. This rule only applied to permits given out after the announcement.

Separating men and women during prayers—how Jews have prayed for millennia—is codified in the Talmud and can be seen as early as the First Holy Temple, allowing men and women each to have their own space to focus without the natural distraction of the opposite gender. At Chabad of North Tel Aviv, the chazan (“cantor”) stands at a central point to lead the prayers where everyone can see and hear him, and Esther and Leah Piekarski walk around the women’s section for those who need assistance and to ensure that everyone feels welcome.

A Unifying Factor in Israeli Life

Chabad’s role in Israeli society has always been one of unity and Ahavat Yisroel (“love of a fellow Jew”), building deep bonds of mutual admiration with all parts of society. Kobi Nachshoni, religious affairs correspondent for Ynet, a leading news website in Israel, wrote this week how Chabad continues to be a unique force that brings Israelis together.

“Chabad always stays away from politics and controversial issues,” Nachshoni wrote, bringing together Jews from across the political and religious spectrum. He noted how on the night of Yom Kippur, opposition leader Yair Lapid made an annual visit to central Tel Aviv synagogues with his wife, Leah, and their children, and how Lapid made it a point to tell reporters how he greeted worshippers “in the big tent of Chabad.”

In that spirit, when the group in North Tel Aviv began to protest at Chabad’s tent synagogue, Piekarski encouraged her fellow worshippers to focus as best they could on the prayers of the holy day and encouraged the protesters to join them in the services.

“The Piekarskis never tell anyone what to do; they just love and accept everyone as they are,” said Elad Gottlieb, a neighborhood resident who was front and center at the Yom Kippur services.

Gottlieb grew up in Israel in a non-religious family, but says Yom Kippur was always a sacred day to his family and neighbors. “We didn’t go to synagogue the rest of the year but on Yom Kippur, we always went to hear the shofar,” he said.

“My wife is Canadian—we’ve lived together in Canada, America, Tokyo—we’ve never seen anything like this. She didn’t know how to take it; she was crying, and my kids were crying. It was very tough.”

Gottlieb says that the Piekarskis encouraged everyone to remain calm, despite aggressive protesters shoving cell phones in their faces. “They kept telling us to just focus on our prayers and not interact,” he adds. “We came to pray, that is all.”

Neighborhood resident Binyamin Engel said that he felt caught off-guard by the protests. Engel is a longtime attendee of Chabad of North Tel Aviv and has great praise for the community built in Israel’s fast-paced center. While he doesn’t usually dress as an identifiably religious Jew, he said, this Yom Kippur, he donned the traditional white kittel and found himself at the target of some of the protesters’ shouts.

One woman who attended the service shouted back at the protesters, begging them to be quiet so that she could pray, recalls Esther Piekarski. “I went over to her and told her it’s OK; it’s best we just do our best to focus and ignore the noise. She was exasperated and said, ‘But I’m usually one of them! I protest with them [against judicial reform] every week! But now I’m embarrassed!’”

When protesters came and sat on the opposite side of the mechitzah, the community simply made room for them and handed them prayer books.

“Women were crying. I saw a young teenager crying to his mother; I know they come every year just on Yom Kippur, and he couldn’t understand why they had to endure this,” said Esther Piekarski.

Most painful to see, Piekarski said, was an elderly Holocaust survivor taking in the scene. “She joins us every year for Yom Kippur. When she saw this, she burst into tears.”

After services, a woman protester apologized to Esther Piekarski, who told the protester that she has no anger towards anyone. They simply wanted to pray and create a space where everyone can pray as well.

“I’m not religious,” responded the woman. “But I couldn’t see this. It was too painful.”

Past, Present and Future

Chabad’s activities in Tel Aviv predate the founding of the modern-day state in 1948. In the 1930s, Lubavitcher Chassidic refugees from the Soviet Union began establishing yeshivahs and social-services centers in the city for their fellow immigrants from around the world. In fact, Esther Piekarski’s grandfather, Rabbi Eliezer Karasik, founded Chabad of Tel Aviv in 1935 under the guidance of the Sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory. In the following decades, Chabad institutions flowered under the active guidance of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

Today, Chabad’s network of more than 50 centers serves the city’s residents and visitors—from early childhood education to senior care. In addition to its focus on native Hebrew speakers, in recent years, Chabad of Tel Aviv has expanded with new centers primarily serving those whose first languages are Russian, French and English.

Rabbi Yosef Shmuel Gerlitzky, director of Chabad of Tel Aviv, noted that what while the Yom Kippur disturbances were unfortunate, “we are busy with light,” noting that “despite the uneasy atmosphere, thousands of city residents of all kinds came out to participate in the Holy Day prayers,” at Chabad synagogues around the city.

Despite the anguish this Yom Kippur, Rabbi Shneur Piekarski doesn’t regret leading the prayers. “People came to pray,” he explained. “They don’t consider themselves religious, they don’t usually go to shul, they go to protests every week—but today, they came simply to pray. They know that Yom Kippur is a different day; it’s a day to put everything aside and come and pray as one. The benefit is much bigger than the price we paid.”

But the price wasn’t a small one. The younger Piekarski says his children were scared, and his wife, who grew up in Argentina, never imagined she’d experience something like this in Israel of all places. “Many of those who came to our services didn’t even want to wear a kippah,” he says. “One man said to me, ‘I just want to hear the shofar. I just want to have a moment with G‑d.’ Jews, at their essence, want to connect with G‑d.”

Esther Piekarski sees in the disruption something even more amazing. The protesters who’d set upon Chabad’s services were people who thought they didn’t want to participate in Yom Kippur this year—neither inside, nor outside. “But somehow, their neshamah (‘soul’) found a way to bring them to hear the shofar,” she says.

Towards the end of the Neilah prayers, Rabbi Shneur Piekarski stood up on his chair for the Shema Yisrael prayer, which is repeated by the whole congregation. At first, the protesters began to scream louder, but then, as the congregation began reciting “Shema Yisrael” in thundering unison, a silence descended.

Then, with protester and worshipper standing side by side, the silence was pierced by the ancient cry of the shofar.