This Year’s Yom Kippur Services Influenced by Pope

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Sunset over the Vatican (Photo by Umberto De Peppo Cocco)

Today, Jews around the world will celebrate Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest day of the year in Judaism. For millenia, Jews have marked the occasion by fasting, attending services, and refraining from certain activities. The purpose of the traditions is to atone for sins against God. But some Jews are doing things differently this year; they are finding inspiration in a Roman Catholic.

In his hugely popular environmental encyclical, published this June, Pope Francis called on everyone — Catholics and non-Catholics to care for God’s creation. He blamed our sinful “throwaway culture” for turning the planet into an “immense pile of filth.” He criticized our addiction to technology and consumption for disconnecting us from nature and the world around us. He urged us to help the poor and vulnerable by caring about climate change.

It’s Pope Francis’s message of environmental atonement that resonates with Jews on Yom Kippur, and it’s a message they want to broadcast as the Pope travels to the United States for the first time this week to address Congress and the United Nations.

Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, the director of the Social Justice Organizing Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, organized special Yom Kippur services at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. — just a mile away from where Pope Francis will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House. Liebling believes the location, a national symbol of repentance for the sin of slavery, is the perfect location for the services.

“The Pope is actually calling on the whole world to engage in atonement, and Yom Kippur is calling on the Jewish people to atone,” Liebling told the Washington Post.

The services, which are sponsored by the Shalom Center, emphasize the need to atone for the human desecration of the Earth. Other people of faith are invited to participate, especially today, on Yom Kippur, when the focus will be more on chanting and reflective spiritual exercises. As Yom Kippur ends, there will be a multi-faith vigil.

“This invitation to other people of faith is an acknowledgement that our worldview is not particular to Judaism, or to Catholicism, or to any one tradition — and that it is critical that we now act together entering into shared atonement for what has occurred and prayer for the future of all life,” explained the Shalom Center on its event site.

This message of unity — as Jews, as people of faith, as members of the global community, and as polluters who must atone for their sins — is also making this year’s Yom Kippur different from many others. Normally, Yom Kippur is a day of reflection about one’s individual sins towards God. But this year, Jewish organizations are urging their members to reflect as a community.

Over 200 other rabbis and cantors from all the Jewish denominations and movements have joined together with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Shomrei Breishit, and The Jewish Council on Public Affairs to welcome Pope Francis to the United States and promising to speak out during the High Holidays (Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot) on climate change. The organizations have provided resources to help.

“More than ever, it is critical that religious communities and the Jewish community in particular raise their voices to confront the moral and spiritual crisis of climate change,” says the joint statement. “We call upon rabbis and religious leaders from every denomination and from every corner of the Jewish world to raise their voices and join together with other people of faith and good will to call for real action on this great crisis.”

Tradition is very important to Judaism, especially on such an important day like Yom Kippur. But as our collective sins of overconsumption and disconnect continue to cause our world to change, temperatures to soar, storms to surge, and people to suffer, it make sense for Jews to atone a little differently this year. Perhaps we should all join them. Perhaps we all should atone for the way we’ve treated our common home.

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About the Author

I’m an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .