We asked several from our network to comment on whether they were observing Tisha b’Av and, if so, how and why. The following are excerpts from their thoughtful answers. The longer versions are available here.
Sue Fendrick, WGF Alum (Class 2) — Newton, MA
I’ve always found it funny when people have said they no longer see the purpose of mourning on Tisha B’Av, arguing that the Jewish diaspora is now entirely a voluntary one and not the result of tragedy or lack of power; and even that the destruction of the ancient Temple and the end of the sacrificial cult was the best thing that ever happened to Judaism. Even if those things are true, to me, they miss the point. One of the major effects of the Jewish calendar, if not its “purpose”, is to take us through the full range of emotions in the context of our individual spiritual and collective religious lives. Tisha B’Av is a time of immersion in collective mourning, in the mythic memory of destruction and tragedy and the longing for what was. It is a time to acknowledge our national losses, without restraint or censorship. We read of devastation, we sing mournfully, we subdue our joy and our enjoyment, we refrain from eating and other pleasures. And we reflect, without any easy answers, on our own contributions to the losses we have sustained.
Since the mid-80s, most years I’ve been at the Western Wall for the night of Tisha B’Av. Sitting on the plaza ground at sufficient remove from the Wall, our mixed group of women, men and children read Eicha (Lamentations) peppered with at least a half-dozen of Shlomo’s mournful melodies to key verses. Our practice drew occasional protests over the years, but has become increasing popular and no longer really stands out. One thing that I have always liked about being at the Wall on Tisha b’Av, however, is the energy of that night — which is not exactly mournful, but is almost electric. It’s as if we were all gathered at Ground Zero commemorating the anniversary of the destruction, but also celebrating our rebirth as a nation at the same time. There are moments during these nights that blur the boundary that normally distinguishes fast from feast days. This year, I won’t make it to the Wall. I’m taking my four older children (18-25) to Poland and the Ukraine for 10 days on a “Roots Trip” and we’ll be in Krakow on Tisha B’Av. Given our location, it seemed impossible not to go to Auschwitz and we’ll be there for the last hours of the fast on Sunday. I don’t think it’s possible to know how this is going to feel, being in that place on that day with my children. Will it be possible to stand in the place where the horrors of Eicha were literally dwarfed by unprecedented, unimaginable murderous cruelty with anything but bottomless sorrow?
Yossi Chajes, WGF Alum (Class 4) is Associate Professor in the Department of Jewish History at the University of Haifa and the director of its Center for the Study of Jewish Culture. A former recipient of Fulbright, Rothchild, Wexner and Hartman Fellowships, he has also been a visiting professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and twice a fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His book, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism (2003) was listed by the Wall Street Journal in 2013 as among the top five books ever written on spirit possession. Yossi currently directs the Israel Science Foundation supported Ilanot Project — an ambitious attempt to catalogue and describe all kabbalistic cosmological diagrams. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Asher Lopatin, WGF Alum (Class 5) — Riverdale, NY
Yes, I will be fasting, mourning, saying the traditional Kinot and feeling the pain of Eicha (Lamentations). The Jewish national day of mourning and reflection, Tisha B’Av, remains as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. The Jewish people still suffer from the infighting, judgmentalism and the attitude of “I’m right and you’re wrong, and you’re destroying Judaism through your practice.” This is the same orientation that gripped Jerusalem on the eve of its destruction in 70 CE. We have a lot of work to do. Hopefully, the build-up to Tisha B’Av and the fasting and mourning will help — even if it’s only a little bit. Perhaps the bickering would be worse without Tisha B’Av.
Asher Lopatin, WGF Alum (Class 5) is President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a modern and open Orthodoxy rabbinical school in New York. He received his ordination from Rav Ahron Soloveichik and from Yeshiva University. He holds an MPhil in Medieval Arabic Thought from Oxford University, as well as a BA in International Relations and Islamic Studies from Boston University. His doctoral work at Oxford University has been on Islamic Fundamentalist attitudes toward Jews. Asher is on the board of numerous Orthodox and multidenominational organizations and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Levy, WHP Alum (Houston 06) — Houston, TX
What leadership lesson(s) can you draw from Tisha B’Av? We can try to find meaning in the day even though we can watch TV, use vehicles and otherwise do normal activities. Attending synagogue to listen to Kinot and the special Megillah of Eichah can be meaningful — but finding meaning does take work. It is a day to pause and to find meaning, we have to reach within and to others as well. We can help others find some connection to the day to show them a path to making the day a part of their Jewish year. Hopefully some day soon, the reason for the day will no longer exist and we can make it a day of celebration and not mourning. While the reestablishment of the State of Israel gets us close, very close, we are not quite there yet.
Robert Levy, WHP Alum (Houston 06) is an attorney in the Law Department of ExxonMobil Corporation. Prior to joining ExxonMobil, Robert was a partner at Haynes and Boone, LLP for over 14 years where he practiced in the Business Litigation Section, focusing on International Arbitration and Technology Litigation, as well as advising on Records Management and Electronic Discovery issues. He also served as a briefing attorney for the Honorable Judge Robert Parker of the Eastern District of Texas. Robert has been practicing law for over 30 years and received his Law Degree from the University of Texas School of Law in 1986 where he graduated with honors. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Steven Michael Grafton Philp, WGF Alum (Class 28) — New York, NY
After I immersed in the mikvah for the first time, my friends and I stuffed ourselves on pizza. And then I fasted. I often tell people that I was lucky to have converted on the cusp of Tisha B’Av. Fasting, sitting on the floor and reading Lamentations gave me something tangible to do. I was a Jew, not only in name but in practice as well.
On my first Tisha B’Av, I entered the synagogue with trepidation. Having studied the holiday, I understood its significance and import. Yet, there was a two thousand-year distance between the tragedy of the Temple and our own time. I was worried that I wouldn’t feel anything — but in the end, I felt many things: uncomfortable, ashamed, bored, frustrated, angry. I became aware of how hard it is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes — and how important it is that we try.
Steven Michael Grafton Philp, WGF Fellow (Class 28) is a second-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Previously, he was a graduate student at the University of Oxford, where his research addressed the intersection of trauma, memory and ritual through post-Holocaust kinnot. In 2014, Steven received his Master of Divinity and Master of Social Work from the University of Chicago. His thesis addressed responses to sexual abuse within Jewish communities. He was also the founding rabbinic intern of Mishkan Chicago, an independent spiritual community recognized by Slingshot. Steven received a BFA in Studio Art and a BA with Honors in English (Creative Writing) and International Relations from the University of Southern California in 2010. Steven grew up in California and Hawaii as a Roman Catholic with a strong Methodist heritage. He became passionate about interfaith work while in college, a path that eventually led him to become part of the Jewish community. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Angie Atkins, Staff and WHP ALum (MetroWest, NJ 08) — New York City, NY
I am going to be on a road trip in Iceland with two of my grown-up kids and husband. I find it easier to think about god and the span of human history in such gorgeous and remote places. Perhaps we will see the Northern Lights after the sun finally sets on our fast at 1 AM. We plan to read Eicha out on the largest glacier in Europe (Vatnajokull) and mourn that it is quickly disappearing. As we head into Elul, we are charged to make amends for the wrongs we have done to other people, and that only on Yom Kippur do we really atone for our sins against god. Being in such a poignant place for Tisha B’Av will allow me to focus on my responsibility to stop global warming, to get ahead of the normal work of Elul (wrongs against people) and glimpse for some sacred and haunting time at the vast destruction we are committing, I am committing, against the natural world and god.
Angie Atkins, WHP Alum (MetroWest, NJ 08) was moved to devote more of her life to giving back to the Jewish world after completing the Wexner Heritage Program. She joined The Wexner Foundation staff in 2010 as Director of Wexner Heritage Alumni, where she works to galvanize the already-tremendous-work of their alumni. Angie has built up platforms, venues and opportunities for alumni to network and cross-pollinate (both online and in person), to continue high-level Jewish and leadership learning and to invigorate the far-reaching communal work in which they already engage. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Judd Kruger Levingston, WGF Alum (Class 1) — Philadelphia, PA
I’ve often turned to Tisha B’Av as a moment of gravitas that comes in the middle of the summer, when the giddiness and fresh feelings of freedom in the first weeks of summer give way towards the anticipation of a new Jewish year and a new school year in the fall. While it’s hard for me to say that I’m truly in mourning over the destruction of the First and Second Temples, I do accept the value of looking at that terrible past, imagining the streets of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and in 70 CE while reading Eicha (Lamentations) and trying to learn something from the history. The rabbinic wisdom about the ways in which we human beings mete out unforgiving cruelty to one another still, regrettably, rings true today. I also find meaning in the redemptive moments of Tisha B’Av that are so powerful: from putting on tefillin in the afternoon after not putting them on in the morning; from hearing and chanting the final, hopeful verses of Lamentations and even from feeling the experience of renewal that comes from breaking a 25-hour fast.
Judd Kruger Levingston, WGF Alum (Class 1) serves as Director of Jewish Studies at Jack M. Barrack (formerly Akiba) Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. He chairs the school’s Derech Eretz Honor Council and coaches the school’s Ultimate Frisbee team. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School in 1993. An avid bicycle commuter, Judd lives with his family in Mt. Airy, where he attends Germantown Jewish Centre. He is the author of Sowing the Seeds of Character: The Moral Education of Adolescents in Public and Private Schools (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feel free to post your own feelings about the holiday below!