What Yom Kippur could mean to you — even if you aren’t Jewish

Ben Wheeler
5 min readSep 16, 2021


A letter of welcome to my classmates at Harvard’s School of Education

The final moment of Yom Kippur is the blowing of a trumpet made from a sheep’s horn. Why? Well, if you ask ten Jews, you’ll get ten different answers. For me, it is a joyous announcement to all that we are in this together.

Hi classmates, I wanted to take a moment to recognize that today is an important day to Jewish students (like me), and to try to tell you about it, if you’re interested. I’m especially aware that many of my HGSE classmates come from countries, and parts of the US, where there aren’t many Jews, and you might not know about this holiday. (Those of you from NYC most DEFINITELY know about it — all students have today off from school, as well as Eid al-Adha and Lunar New Year; parents are pushing to add Diwali!)

First, I wanted to make clear that I’m not trying to convince you or convert you. Judaism is not an evangelical religion — we don’t try to convert people to Judaism, and officially converting is a complicated process. (I personally think conversion should be much simpler and more welcoming, which is to say I disagree with many other Jews about Judaism. That’s another big aspect of Judaism — disagreement and debate!) My hope is just that you’ll find this interesting, and maybe it will prompt you to reflect in your own way, along with us.

Today is called “Yom Kippur”, which literally means “Cleaning Day”. You’ll usually hear it translated as “Day of Atonement”, which I think sounds artificially grandiose. On Yom Kippur, which takes place just after the start of the Jewish new year, you look back over the past year and do a sort of moral audit of your life, and the life of your community and the world. You might find personal times you have wronged someone; I’ve often realized that I was carrying guilt and shame over how I treated someone, which I hadn’t been ready to recognize. Just like how some people reached out to old friends at the start of the pandemic, some people reach out on Yom Kippur, or in the days afterwards, to say something like… “Remember in March how I laughed when you said you wanted to quit your job and learn to direct films? I’ve been sorry ever since. I want you to know how scared I am of taking a risk like that, and that I support you 100%.” This morning, I apologized to my daughter for swearing at her in a particularly heated argument about laundry (OMG never have kids), and she apologized to me for… (she paused for a long time) “being sometimes annoying”. I’ll take it.

But the day is about more than just person-to-person apologies. “Apology” is kind of a weird word. There’s something kind of selfish about it; an apology often elicits responses that assure the apologizer that they don’t need to apologize. It can put the focus on the person doing the apologizing. I like to think of what we do on Yom Kippur as more like “What has been happening that we don’t talk about?“, and then, “How could it work differently, in a way that connects us?”

One of the most powerful parts of the service today is called the “litany”. A Jewish religious community is led by a “teacher” (in the US, you’ll usually see this written as “rabbi” and pronounced as “RA-bye”, which rhymes with “rad guy”); on Yom Kippur, the head teacher reads aloud a long history of people who have been the victims of violence. This history doesn’t gloss over the details — it describes unflinchingly some of the unbelievable cruelty that humans are capable of inflicting on each other. The victims in this history are all Jews of the past, which I’ve often wished we would change to include other people. For some Jews, the point is tighter, more fierce group identity, and the lesson is to never allow these atrocities to happen to Jews again. But for other Jews, like me, the point is not our separation, but our connection to the world. Hearing of the pain of a child killed out of a nationalism gone insane makes me all the more determined not to allow nationalistic hatred to hurt immigrant children at the US-Mexican border. Hearing of someone’s ancestry being the only reason for their being kept from their home makes me think of Palestinian families who used to live within the borders of Israel, who are blocked by soldiers from living there now because of their ancestry. (I know some people will disagree with this example, and it’s not the final word, by any means! Remember what I said about Jews and debate :)

More broadly, looking squarely at the suffering and cruelty some people inflict, and suffer, challenges us to pause our lives and ask, what is our relationship to the injustice and pain in the world? When are we working on our own needs, dreams, and rights, and when are we working for others’? If there is a role or a routine we play, are we playing that out of intention or out of inertia? If there is an injustice we know of — one that’s been on my mind are the atrocious conditions, and rampant violence, within the “juvenile hall” prisons that teenagers are put in, which state governments hide and lie about — what are we doing about it, and how are we balancing that outrage with the need to get enough sleep, feed ourselves and our loved ones, and experience joy and freedom? How much of the pain of the world can we accept, or face, or ignore, or fight against? Is there a form of exclusive privilege in the assumption that we ourselves are safe and powerful enough to benevolently turn our attentions to helping others? I think these are questions you can grapple with for a lifetime, but they are also questions that are usually preempted by more immediate and practical needs. And that is what today is for.

Thanks for reading — I’d love to know your thoughts and reactions, if you’d be willing to share. And I’d like to make my own “What if it happened differently” to our HGSE community. Many times, I’ve wondered if a classmate from another country might be running into linguistic or cultural barriers that make full engagement difficult. (I mean, I’m struggling with all the reading, and English is my first language…) I don’t know what kind of empathy, or imagination, or invitation might help, or if I’m projecting my own needs onto others! But I want to reflect on that, and look carefully at the assumptions I make about who might be interested in hanging out and connecting.