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Israel’s Two Wheel Yom Kippur Dilemma

With Roads Quiet, Children Mistake the Fast Day for Bike Fest

By , Israel

(lubavitch.comAmir Karlinsky used to suffer from two headaches on Yom Kippur. One from caffeine withdrawal during the fast, and the other from running alongside his three daughters as they rode their bikes on Tel Aviv’s empty streets.

“Even though I did not keep other mitzvot, I would fast and take the children out to bike,” he said.

Taking a day with the spiritual potential of Yom Kippur and choosing to bike instead is like pairing Beluga caviar with Velveeta cheese. But convincing children to give up a freewheeling day of biking for quiet prayer and introspection in the synagogue is a tough sell, especially in a country where many associate biking with Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Yitzchok Beer, program director at Chabad of Tel Aviv’s Bet Moshe Geulat Yisrael synagogue visited schools in his neighborhood before Yom Kippur. 

“What do you know about Yom Kippur?” he asked the group of eager four year olds at the Tzivyoni kindergarten.

“We ride our bikes!” shouted an eager volunteer.

“What else do you know about Yom Kippur?”

“Sometimes, we take out our scooters!” 

In the run up to Yom Kippur, bicycle shops advertise holiday specials, especially on children’s bikes. Nitzan Bikes on Jaffa Street, near the hustle and bustle of the Machane Yehudah outdoor market, is offering a special on shiny girls’ 18-gear bikes. “The special runs through the end of the holidays, but we only have six left,” said Mark, a salesman. 

The origin of biking on Yom Kippur in Israel is murky, but it is ironically tied to the widespread reverence that Israelis—secular ones—have for this holiest of Jewish days. It is the only day of the year when factories come to a halt; newspapers stop the presses; radios fall silent; buses slumber in garages. A water park in Holon, Yamit 2000, open on Rosh Hashanah and every other Jewish holiday is closed on Yom Kippur. 

“Biking has become a huge craze in Israel. Biking on Yom Kippur is popular because even totally secular Israelis do not drive that day.”

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics of 2008, only 31% of Israelis consider themselves religious, but a Panals Institute survey that same year found that 63% of Israelis fast on Yom Kippur. That leaves a lot of Jewish people outside of the synagogue looking for something do with the kids on the day of reflection.

So Chabad representatives are doing what they do best: educating children about the significance of their Jewish traditions, in this case, Yom Kippur, and how it relates to them.

Last year, Rabbi Pinchas Marton, a Chabad representative in Kiryat Bialik, watched children whiz by his synagogue door on their bikes and in the electric mini-cars. Where others see an anathema, Rabbi Marton sees Jewish people ready to embrace the holiday.

“People have a warmth toward the holiness of the day,” said Rabbi Marton. “They want to make it different from the rest of the year. When the streets are empty, riding in a car is very noticeable way to break with the holiday.”   

To teach children about the holiday, Rabbi Marton brought a mobile shofar factory experience to schools throughout Kiryat Bialik. At Bialik Elementary and Kadima Elementary, he answered children’s questions about Yom Kippur and invited them to his synagogue. He hopes they will bring the message of acceptance and welcome back to their parents. 

That’s what happened to the Karlinsky family.  Three and a half years ago, Karlinsky started talking about going to Chabad of Tel Aviv. 

“One day, my daughter took my hand and said, ‘Let’s go to the synagogue.’ She moved the idea from thought to action.”

Thus began the trail that led Amir Karlinsky and his family to leave their bikes in the storage lockup on Yom Kippur. With his holiday biking headache gone, Karlinsky can be mindful about the day’s deeper spiritual journey.  


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