Tisha B’av Feature for Some Jews, Holiday a Way to Mark Genocide, Personal Recovery

Last summer Sarah Appleby, then 24, spent part of Tisha B’Av, helping to fingerpaint a large mural with three panels. One panel represented loss, another mourning, and a third rebuilding and renewal. “It was pretty abstract,” she said.

But she says that experience, in conjunction with other activities, helped her and a group of 11 other Jewish young adult participants in Adamah — a three- or six-month fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn. — to find a personal connection to the holiday.

Traditionally, Tisha B’Av, which occurs on the ninth day of the month of Av and marks the destruction in Jerusalem of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. and the Second Temple in 70 C.E., is commemorated by observant Jews who fast, sit on the floor and chant Eicha, or Lamentations. They mourn the loss of the Temple and lament other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people over the millennia, including the end of the Bar-Kochba revolt in 135 CE, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the Holocaust.

In recent years, some communities and denominations, including many Reform Jews, have moved away from observances of Tisha B’Av — which begins this year at sundown on Aug. 13 — because they believe the Temple is no longer central to Jewish religious life.

Other groups, however, such as Adamah, have found ways to infuse the holiday with new meaning and thus increase observance and appreciation for it.

“I don’t really identify with the loss of the Temple,” says Appleby, who chanted Lamentations with her Adamah group on Tisha B’Av evening, “but I like having a day of mourning for Jews to look at things that we’ve lost and to connect those to personal hard times and current-day difficulties.”

Those difficulties can include individual anguish such as addiction, societal suffering such as genocide or poverty, or global suffering such as environmental devastation. But all use the same metaphor as a springboard.

“The destruction of the Temple may be the most significant symbol in Jewish communal life,” says Lori Lefkovitz, the Gottesman Professor of Gender and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the director of the Kolot Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies, both in Wyncote, Pa. And while she agrees that Tisha B’Av is one of the relatively neglected observances, at least anecdotally, she believes our job is to find ways to recapture its meaning for ourselves.

For Lefkovitz and members of her community, the Germantown Jewish Centre, a Conservative synagogue in Philadelphia, that means connecting the holiday to current societal and political issues. Thus, prior to the service, congregants meet for a lecture and discussion on topics that have included Yiddish women’s poetry as well as the loss of sacred public space. This year’s lecture, presented by Tamar Kamionkowski, the dean of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, will examine different modes of suffering.

Afterward, in silence, the 50 or so participants will light candles and move into the darkened sanctuary where they will sit on the dais and chant Eicha, followed by songs of lament. They will then depart in silence.

The lecture serves to bond the community. “The ritual then works in the way ritual should work, which is not cerebral but emotive,” Lefkovitz says.

Ikar, the one-year-old Los Angeles spiritual community led by Rabbi Sharon Brous, will host a traditional commemoration service to give people a sense of awareness of the tragedy of Tisha B’Av.

The following evening, Ikar participants, along with members of the egalitarian Shtibl minyan, will view a film about Rwanda and hear a lecture about Darfur in Africa and other crises. Brous plans to hold a “serious, honest, soulful conversation about dealing with the knowledge that so much of the suffering we read about in Lamentations is a reality today for millions of people.”

For Brous, it’s critical that people emerge from the darkness of Tisha B’Av with a real sense of purpose and with a mandate that will guide them in how to act in the world.

Daniel Ziskin, the founder and president of Jews of the Earth, also hopes Tisha B’Av will inspire people to act. For the past two years, this non-profit environmental group, established about five years ago in Boulder, Colo., has used Tisha B’Av to increase awareness of the earth’s destruction.

Last year, at the Boulder Jewish Community Center, at the close of Tisha B’Av, the Israeli-born forest activist Udi Lazimy presented a slide show of forest destruction while Ziskin recited corresponding phrases in English from Lamentations.

Afterward, the participants, the majority of whom are unaffiliated, talked about their own sacred places and the impending threats against them. A break fast followed.

Taking personal responsibility, especially for oneself, is a theme for Rabbi Mark Borovitz, spiritual leader of Beit T’Shuvah, a recovery community in Los Angeles.

“We take the metaphor of destruction and look at ourselves. We see what we have destroyed in our lives and the lives of people around us, and we mourn for that,” Borovitz says.

And so, for the last eight or nine years, the 70 to 80 Beit T’Shuvah residents, as well as graduates and others simply seeking meaning and introspection, gather in the Beit T’Shuvah synagogue on Tisha B’Av evening. They sit in silence and in darkness pierced only by candlelight while Borovitz chants Eicha. Afterward they discuss the destructions they have caused and now mourn in their own lives, and they talk about how they can rebuild those “temples.”

“For some people, this is a very, very profound and amazing transforming experience,” said Borovitz, who gathers the group together in the synagogue the following afternoon for another chanting of Eicha and further discussion and soul searching.

“There’s tremendous cathartic power in a communal mourning ritual,” says Kolot’s Lefkovitz, who also founded ritualwell.org, a Web site in which she collects and makes innovative, contemporary Jewish ceremonies available.

“It is our job to take all these classical observances and find the ways in which we can use them to bring sanctity and perspective to our own lives,” she adds.

(Jane Ulman is a freelance writer in Encino, Calif. She is the mother of four sons.)

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