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Israel Shuts Down for Yom Kippur Amid Fears

Holiday’s calm conflicts with concerns over perceived Iranian threat

People walk along an empty street during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM — The start of the Jewish Day of Atonement at sundown Sunday marked the beginning of a day like no other in Israel, on which even Israelis with no connection to religion tend to put their normal lives on hold.

This year Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, comes at a particularly somber time following revelations of a previously hidden Iranian nuclear facility and more missile tests by the Revolutionary Guard.

When Yom Kippur began … TV and radio stations blinked off the air, flights in and out of Israel’s international airport ceased, and nearly all businesses closed. The streets emptied of cars and cities and highways were eerily quiet.

The country’s ordinary bustle receded to the cities and towns that are home to the one-fifth of Israelis who are Muslims and Christians. …

Day of fasting and praying
According to tradition, Jews must spend Yom Kippur day fasting, praying and repenting for past sins in the hopes of receiving divine forgiveness before God seals their fate for the upcoming year.

Israel has a large population of religious Jews who observe all the Jewish festivals, but Yom Kippur is unique among Jewish holidays for its resonance among people who are distant from religion during the rest of the year. Most Israeli Jews say they fast, and almost no one dares drive a car. Many will not even talk on the phone, surf the Internet or turn on a television.

“For the average secular Israeli, this is a day to connect with his spirituality and his Judaism, even though he is not religious,” said Rabbi David Stav, one of the founders of Tzohar, an organization dedicated to making Judaism more accessible to secular Israelis.

“He fasts, he prays, he doesn’t work or watch television — the day is dedicated to matters of the spirit,” Stav said. ….

High alert

Fainting, dehydration and other fasting-related complaints are common, and Israeli emergency services went on high alert.

While the day is largely solemn, it has its lighter side. The streets, emptied of cars, fill up with children on bicycles and skateboards taking advantage of the rare opportunity to ride down the middle of the road.

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