ENCINO, Calif. (Jul. 8)
On Wednesday evening, July 17, my son Jeremy, 13, will join friends and campmates around three bonfires in a large pasture in the shadow of the Santa Susanna Mountains, north of Los Angeles.
But they won’t be roasting marshmallows or singing “Out in Right Field.” Instead, in this deliberately dark and somber setting, they’ll be marking the anniversary of a less benign conflagration that occurred almost 2,000 years ago and more than 7,500 miles away.
This is Erev Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, and one of the saddest days in the Jewish year. These 340 campers, ages 8 to 17, along with the counselors and staff of Camp Alonim in Simi Valley, Calif., have come to mourn the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, in 587 BCE and 70 CE respectively, and the Jews’ forced exile out of the land of Israel.
Ed Gelb, director of Camp Alonim, which is located at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, says, “Going out into that field at night is a powerful and serious experience for these kids. They get a strong sense of history and of Jewish continuity.”
Judaism is an experiential religion. On Passover, we are commanded to feel as if we personally went out from Egypt. On Sukkot, we live in huts like Israelites wandering in the wilderness. On Shavuot, we symbolically stand again at Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.
And on Tisha B’Av we are supposed to see ourselves as a people whose world has been shattered.
Normally, Jeremy couldn’t imagine having his entire way of Jewish life destroyed. Normally, he couldn’t imagine being uprooted from his homeland.
But this year, unfortunately, Jeremy can relate to tragedy.
On Sept. 11, he witnessed a national conflagration as an American icon was attacked and razed.
And since September 2000, when Israeli-Palestinian violence flared up, he has witnessed numerous religious conflagrations in Israel in the form of terrorist attacks.
Perhaps it’s ironic or metaphoric or portentous that thousands of acres in the Western United States have been consumed by the worst wildfires ever. For it seems as if our entire world, our entire way of life as we know it, is about to go up in flames.
Tisha B’Av is historically a day of tragedy, and Jeremy will learn about this the following morning.
According to the Talmud, before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, God told Moses to send representatives from the 12 Tribes into Canaan to reconnoiter and report back.
After 40 days, on the Ninth of Av, the spies returned and warned that the Israelites could not conquer their enemies there. The Israelites then complained about having been taken out of Egypt, and God, like a parent giving them something to really cry about, decreed that the Ninth of Av would forever be a day of mourning.
In 135 CE, Betar, the last stronghold of the Bar-Kochba Revolt, fell.
In 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain.
In 1555, the Jews were moved into the ghetto in Rome.
In 1942, Jews began to be deported from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka.
But the day, and the message, of Tisha B’av aren’t focused only on mourning.
At Camp Alonim, Gelb says, “We also want the campers to understand that the Jewish people have a strong ability to survive. For us, the mood shifts around noon from the historical to the future, on how to lead responsible and active Jewish lives.”
In ancient times, the Jews were blamed for the destruction of both temples. The Talmud states, “Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of idolatry, incest and spilling of blood within it. And why the second? Because of groundless hatred.”
Today, we obviously don’t blame ourselves for those tragedies, but we still have a responsibility not to indulge in those offenses, to live by Jewish values.
And so, in the afternoon, Jeremy and his fellow campers will participate in discussions about idolatry, which manifests itself as materialism in today’s world. And about lashon hara, or gossip, which is a form of hatred and which is painfully familiar to all kids as well as adults. They will talk about ways in which they can support Israel.
They will learn that in Judaism, along with mourning, pain and exile, come hope and redemption.
And that perhaps someday the three bonfires in the large pasture in the shadow of the Santa Susanna Mountains will not mark the destruction of the two temples but rather the birth of the Messiah, which, the rabbis tell us, will occur on the Ninth of Av.
Jane Ulman lives in Encino, Calif., with her husband and four sons.