Why GatherDC Hosted a Space to Eat on Yom Kippur: A Note from Rabbi Ilana

by Rabbi Ilana Zietman / October 14, 2022

To the GatherDC community, 

As you might know, GatherDC hosted an event on Yom Kippur that got a lot of attention: lunch. 

It was an “intentional lunch meetup” for those who would find it meaningful to gather with others who also do not fast on Yom Kippur, to say a bracha (blessing) for the act of taking care of one’s body and spirit on a day when people can feel a lot of shame for not fasting, and then to break off with others to eat or drink as desired. 

Our goal was to offer a space where people could find others who also do not fast for a variety of physical, emotional, and psychological reasons and to experience their intentional (i.e. thoughtful) decision through a lens of Jewish ritual. Though there are actually more Jews who don’t fast on Yom Kippur than most probably realize, there is a disproportionate lack of public spaces, rituals, and accessible and compassionate guidelines to support them. 

As I’ve learned, when our communities send the message that people who must eat on Yom Kippur should stay private and quiet, we—however well-intended—often pressure people to fast when they shouldn’t, or otherwise make them feel unwelcome in Jewish spaces on Judaism’s holiest day of the year. Maybe this has been your experience, too.

What we wanted more than anything was to acknowledge those in our community who rarely feel seen on Yom Kippur (just as Gather strives to do with our alternative morning experience) and offer them a dedicated space to show up for themselves and for one another. This was always intended to be a small, intimate gathering for those who wanted to make the trek. It would be informal, welcoming, and facilitated with care. It was still an experiment—I had never led this kind of experience before—and I was so grateful to the community members who signed up, even after it drew some harsh responses on social media. 

Now that Yom Kippur has come and gone, I’d love to share what I saw and learned. 

We were twenty individuals gathered in a circle in the rain, trying to stay warm and dry. I began by sharing what motivated me to create this space, my hope that it would meet people’s expectations, and invited everyone to let me know if I made any missteps in the process. We then said a blessing (generously provided by A Mitzvah To Eat and Chronic Congregation) for honoring the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, of preserving life, and read a prayer about finding peace and wholeness on this day of deep introspection. Then I opened the floor to anyone who wanted to set an intention for themselves or to share out why they were there. 

I was amazed by how honest people were with complete strangers. People talked about eating on Yom Kippur as part of recovering from eating disorders and other difficult relationships with food. Some needed to eat to alleviate chronic pain or to take essential medications. Others were looking to connect to Yom Kippur outside the tradition of fasting. Some had traveled hours to be there, and others had not participated in a communal Yom Kippur experience for years. In each case, the people who attended this experience, regardless of their reason for not fasting, showed up because they wanted to engage in the deep introspection and transformation work of Yom Kippur. 

We had a good laugh at the pigeons who joined us in hopes of a meal of their own, and then we said our goodbyes as people wandered off to nourish themselves, surrounded by a new community. This brief but raw experience embodied the vulnerable presence and spiritual connection that we are supposed to strive for at this time of year. 

I can’t express how inspired I am by those of you who made this experience what it was. The acts of listening to your needs and not enduring the guilt or shame often associated with eating on Yom Kippur are so worthy of celebration. I’m honored you felt you could show up to affirm that. I know it wasn’t necessarily easy. I know you took a chance. I know we have room for improvement next year.  

But I hope you know how much of a difference you made in each other’s day, and in mine. Since then, several of you have told me how validating it was to feel less alone in your unique experience of Yom Kippur and how much it meant to do this with others. You shared an appreciation for our unapologetic approach through it all and for staying true to our mission.

For those of you in our community who couldn’t attend the in-person gathering, know that we are here to help connect you to people and resources. And for those who weren’t sure why GatherDC was hosting a lunch meetup on Yom Kippur, I hope this sparks continued curiosity and conversation. 

This year, I learned yet again the holiness of creating alternative, warm, and inclusive spaces for and with Jews in our community, even when it pushes conventional norms. It can be hard, but it’s worth making room for all of us to be seen, valued, and nourished as we are. 

Thank you for your partnership on this journey. 

L’shanah tovah u’metukah, to a happy, healthy, and sweet new year,

Rabbi Ilana 


PS – Want to talk further? Please reach out to me at rabbi.ilana@gatherdc.org



About the author: Rabbi Ilana Zietman is GatherDC’s Community Rabbi. She loves meeting new people and creating real and meaningful connections with them. When Rabbi Ilana isn’t officially Gathering, she can be found cooking in her kitchen, practicing yoga, going on hikes, and desperately searching for good pizza in DC (seriously, help her find some!).



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