By Phyllis Singer
This year we celebrated the Bar Mitzvah — the 13th year — of our High Holidays in Israel. And Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Peres came to our synagogue to celebrate with us! Well, not exactly to celebrate with us, but they were in our Beit Knesset (synagogue) for Kol Nidre.
Actually, Netanyahu and Peres have been coming to our Beit Knesset for Kol Nidre for several years — beginning in 2009, the year Netanyahu was elected prime minister. Their official residences are in the neighborhood where we live. Our neighborhood is considered upscale, with a mixture of luxury apartments, old-time apartment buildings built in the early years of the state, like the one where we live, and the official residences of the president and the prime minister.
We live across the street from our synagogue. When we had to move from our previous apartment a little more than three years ago, we found this apartment. It’s smaller than what we wanted, but as they say in the real estate business – location, location, location! Allen was sick, and across from the shul was very convenient. And it still is.
Two years ago, we couldn’t understand what was happening on our street Erev Yom Kippur. The police were everywhere, barriers were being erected, canvas drapes were put up in front of the lower entrance of the synagogue. And when it was time for Kol Nidre, we knew the reason: Netanyahu and Peres arrived with their security contingents. (Actually, Peres might have been there the year before; I don’t remember. If he was, the security arrangements were much lower.)
This year was the third year that the two of them came to our shul. It’s a very interesting phenomenon to observe. Some members of the shul think it’s a pain because of all the security, but most members think it’s an honor or just accept it.
On Tuesday, the police posted notices on all the buildings on our street that no parking would be allowed on the street on Friday, Erev Yom Kippur. The notice didn’t say why, but now we all know: The police would be erecting security barriers. On Thursday, the shul sent out an email notice to all members: Please arrive early for Kol Nidre (which was scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.) to allow time for security checks before the prime minister and president arrive.
Candle lighting was at 4:40 p.m. Immediately after candle lighting, Allen and I left. The barrier extended halfway down the street and up to the corner past our building. The police opened the barrier for a woman in a wheelchair and also allowed Allen to go through that way since he is now partially handicapped and walks with two hiking poles. The security guards checked everyone as we entered the shul. Peres, Netanyahu and his sons sat in a front row near the rabbi, and Sara sat upstairs in a front row in the women’s section in the balcony. Security guards were everywhere – in the front of the shul, in the back, on the sides, upstairs.
Although during the year we do not have assigned seats in shul, for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur we do. My seat is in the first row overlooking where Peres and Netanyahu sit, so I had a birds-eye view. It was very interesting and very revealing.
It seems inconceivable, but Peres seemed to know nothing about the service or the siddur (prayerbook). He was always losing his place, and the rabbi frequently turned the pages for him. Netanyahu, on the other hand, seemed to follow the service. His younger son, Avner, is very knowledgeable, followed everything and was davening (praying) with the congregation. His brother, Yair, didn’t seem to know much about the service and was always asking Avner to find the place for him. (Interestingly, last year, Avner used to nudge Netanyahu when it was time to stand during the service, but this year it wasn’t necessary.)
(I don’t know whether Avner is observant at all, but I do know that he is very knowledgeable – especially about the Bible. In 2010, he won the Jerusalem Bible Quiz and competed in the International Bible Quiz Competition on Yom Ha’atzmaut. It seems that knowledge has also transferred to holiday observance.)
Peres did not stay for the entire evening service. Last year, he left shortly after Kol Nidre. This year, he stayed a little longer but left about halfway through the service. Netanyahu and his family, on the other hand, stayed for the entire evening service. One of the officers of the shul asked the congregation to remain in their seats until the prime minister and his family left. And everyone honored that request. Graciously, Netanyahu and Sara stopped to shake hands with many well-wishers on their way out of the synagogue.
They don’t return the next day. I have no idea whether they attend services anywhere else.
Late Saturday night, there was a lot of noise on our street. I said to Allen, “Do you think someone is making all that noise putting up a sukkah tonight?” “No,” Allen said, “it’s the police, taking down all the barriers.” And so it was until next year in Jerusalem!