Let’s Celebrate! It’s Yom Kippur!

In the waning hours of Yom Kippur, the last rays of sun cast long shadows through the stained-glass windows. It is time for “Ne’ila,” the final prayer in a day filled with prayer, when the gates on high, opened especially wide for this day, begin their final closing.

So still, so intense, so enraptured are worshipers for these final moments of supplication, that most forget they have been fasting for 24 hours, that they have been standing in one place for hours, that within seconds of hearing the piercing blast of the shofar, they will rush home to the waiting coffee and honey cake.

“It’s like the final leg of a race, where there is a sprint to the finish line,” says Rabbi Alan Greenbaum of Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks. “Not in the sense of ‘let’s finish this up and get home,’ but ‘let’s use every last ounce of energy we have to make this meaningful.’ “

The idea of prayers rising through a heavenly portal is painted graphically in the liturgy of Ne’ila, a word that means locking. The image of the gate, along with the idea of the Book of Life — and the ark open for the entire Ne’ila service — gives worshipers something tangible to visualize, says Rabbi Donald Goor of Temple Judea in Tarzana.

“With those two very physical images in people’s minds, it makes it a very powerful moment,” says Goor.

The image of a compassionate God, waiting for our penitence until the very last minute, encapsulates what Judaism is about, says Rabbi Yisroel Kelemer of Congregation Mogen David on the Westside.

“The most beautiful prayer we say is ‘open up the gate, even as the gate is closing,’ ” Kelemer says, quoting from “Ne’ila.” “God is there to the last minute to accept our repentance. To me, that is the loving God, the kind God, the patient God. That is the fantastic, powerful theme of Ne’ila.”

And as the sky grows dark, the passage of time is palpable, lending more urgency to the prayers.

Rabbi Nachum Braverman of Aish Hatorah on the Westside says that as the final minutes tick down, the full import and opportunity of the entire period of repentance — from the month of Elul through Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Repentance, and then Yom Kippur — comes to rest in those last moments of prayer.

“When we are young, we have choices and a feeling that we can be whatever we want, we can go anywhere,” Braverman says. “But I think everyone has a sense that at some point, they’re not sure when, that sense of opportunity to make what they wanted of life has been lost … They come to terms with the mediocrity of their lives, but there is a tragic sense of loss.

“I think Yom Kippur holds out hope to become free of the past, to remake yourself and have a fresh beginning. Ne’ila is the last chance. That sense of hope and of loss, and the hope that we can redress that loss, gets packed into those fading moments of Ne’ila.”

Braverman also points to the sense of community during Ne’ila, when all voices join together to say the “Shema,” and to loudly and repeatedly proclaim, “Adonai Hu HaElohim” — “The Lord is God.”

“You feel the whole community reaching out as one with such a sense of passion,” he says. “As you come to the end, there is such a sense of intensity, exhilaration. I find it enormously moving every year.”

It is a power that brings out even those who aren’t there for much of the service.

Many secular Israelis in Los Angeles, for instance, who don’t come to Kol Nidre the evening before and spend the day fasting at home with their families, come out in great numbers for Ne’ila.

“I don’t know if Israelis in Israel go to shul, but here I think they feel like they have the urge to do something about it,” says Gal Shor, managing editor of the Hebrew-language weekly, Shalom L.A. “I don’t feel like I need to spend the whole day, but the last two hours is fine.”

While some of the trend can also be attributed to the fact that Israelis aren’t used to the idea of paying to go to shul — and usually no one asks for tickets at Ne’ila — Shor also says the desire to hear the Shofar brings families out.

That seems to be true all over, where Ne’ila and the Havdalah that follows have become family-centered events.

At Temple Beth Zion, a small, mostly elderly congregation on Olympic Boulevard, Rabbi Edward Tenenbaum holds a special ceremony to bless the children just before the blowing of the Shofar.

“A lot of people bring their grandchildren and families together for that final moment,” he says. “It really seems to bring a family bond.”

At Temple Akiba in Culver City, that community bond is strengthened by a 25-year-old custom: All members who own shofars — usually about 50 or 60 people — are invited to come up to the bimah in the darkened sanctuary.

“At the end of Havdalah, everyone blows the tekiah gedolah together, and it’s a big, festive thing,” says Rabbi Allen Maller. “It’s been a long day primarily of introspection and inwardness, and a good sort of ending, to make a distinction between that day and now, is a grand finale, a big celebration.”

Many congregations have a song-filled final “Kaddish,” and others also sing “L’shana Haba Biy’rushalyim” — “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

Even the stampede to get home and eat, within seconds of the shofar sounding, gives tribute to the power of Ne’ila, Kelemer points out.

“God bless them, all everyone wants is to get out,” Kelemer says. “But not two minutes earlier, you could hear a pin drop. It was like we were transformed into a different realm, a whole different world.”

The Effects of Fasting

By Sandy Goodman

Fasting is an ancient practice common to Judaism as well as other religions. The fast on Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is reflective of personal sacrifice. It is a time to set aside all activity, including eating, and focus on prayer and repentance. In addition to spiritual benefits, fasting also has salutary effects on the body. Not eating for a notable period of time rids the body of toxic wastes, enabling it to make a fresh start.

Four Pre- and Post-Fast Tips

1) Eat a normal meal the day before Yom Kippur, with an emphasis on carbohydrates.

2) Drink a lot of water prior to the fast.

3) When breaking the fast, drink plenty of water and juices.

4) Eat the first solid foods slowly.

Excerpted from www.jewishfamily.com. For more information, read “Jewish Family & Life: Traditions, Holidays, and Values for Today’s Parents and Children” (Golden Books) by Yosef I. Abramowitz and Rabbi Susan Silverman.