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[COMMENTARY]: As an Atheist New Yorker, I Feel Compelled to Observe Yom Kippur

I was raised as a member of the Jewish faith. I had a bar mitzvah, completed my confirmation a couple years later, and then, upon beginning college, abandoned my belief in a supreme being. My reasoning was sound, and has not changed – simply, that there is no empirical evidence to support or falsify God’s existence.

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Today, I still remain beholden to this Atheist, or maybe extreme agnostic, principled application of reason. The core lessons I learned through my Jewish education about community, charity, family, and personal growth, however, are still ingrained within me, and are compelling me to do something I have avoided for nearly two decades – observing, albeit in my own way, the High Holy Day of Yom Kippur, which falls on this coming Monday.

I have lived in New York City for a little more than nine years. Being a resident and participant in this crystal and concrete playground has shaped me into the person I am today, and for that I owe a debt I can never repay.

What I can do, though, is spare one day to cut out the incessant political noise and partisan bickering to instead reflect on the calamity that the coronavirus pandemic has befallen this great town.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 began in March, 33,000 of our neighbors and fellow residents have had their lives extinguished – this is a mass tragedy unlike anything anyone in my generation has experienced. It is an ongoing, collective, personal trauma that has impacted every New Yorker, whether they have gotten sick, like I did early on, or if they have managed to avoid catching the virus.

We were confined to our apartments – which are often small and crowded and without conveniences like dishwashers and washer/dryers – for months, unable to physically interact with the people with whom we are closest. As a result, many of us have had to relearn very basic social skills. Our emotional vulnerabilities, no doubt exploited by the crushing blows the city has received, puncture through the brittle walls we erect to protect ourselves from emotional pain – but all this really accomplishes is the opposite.

That anguish festers. It ferments, but it does not degrade. It becomes self-reenforcing, because the crisis is still dictating how we live our lives, every single day.

I deserve a break. You deserve a break. We deserve a break.

For these reasons, I urge all New Yorkers, regardless of their faith or lack thereof, to dedicate some time to process the last five months. We have to talk about it. We need to band together – at the park, online, through texting and social media – to craft an exit strategy out of this mess – as well as a means of mourning and healing – together – so that we can get to work showing the rest of the world how to bounce back. That is our job as New Yorkers, and it is a privilege to be a part of it. With crisis comes opportunity, and there will be plenty of them that will find those willing to take a leap of faith and listen.

We owe it to those we lost. We owe it to this weird, wonderful metropolis in which no two days are ever the same. Most of all, we owe it to ourselves to disempower the anger, the rage, the sorrow, the fear, and then accept the circumstances that were imposed upon us against our consent.

But the Days of Awe – the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – are not about blame. They are about forgiveness, save for no one else but each of us, in our own way.

One thing all New York City residents share is an unyielding drive to succeed. We are a city of survivors; of artists; of creators. We are a hive mind comprised of individuals bound by a common theme: chiseling our mark, however small or large, on the soul of this magically imperfect place.

The Hebrew Mourner’s Kaddish offers hope that “there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us.”

That responsibility lies with each of us. Time to get to work. Shana Tovah.



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