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.
As a rabbi, I try to translate Tisha B’Av, but not simply to sanitize it to make it more palatable for a modern sensibility. As a Jew, I feel the need to experience Tisha B’Av on its own terms. The first time I went to a synagogue that really sang kinot, the traditional songs of lamentation, I felt myself able to give voice to something that had not previously found expression in a religious context: the deep sadness of deep collective loss. I don’t think that felt need was only because I am a daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors — but I’m sure that didn’t hurt.
On Simchat Torah we dance, upright, with joy. On Tisha B’Av we sit, bent over, in sadness. Both postures and every posture in between are part of the emotional spectrum of Jewish life, and I embrace them all.
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Asher Lopatin, WGF Alum (Class 5) — Riverdale, NY
Yes, I will be fasting, mourning, saying the traditional kinot and feeling the pain of the Book of Eicha. 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, the fasting and mourning will help, even if it’s only a little bit. Perhaps the bickering would be worse without Tisha B’Av.
The structure of the day of Tisha B’Av also provides meaning and relevance: We start out broken, devastated, reading the Book of Lamentations while sitting on the floor, not even allowed to greet each other or say the Birkat HaMazon together in the pre-fast meal. Yet, by the afternoon, we can sit on chairs, we insert the Song of the Day and other routine prayers that give us our regular comfort and confidence. At night, as we end the fast, we gather outside to say a prayer welcoming the new month, now 10 days old, with the eternal hope of renewal. Just a few days later, we celebrate the 15th of Av, the holiday of love and joy. To survive and thrive we need to be able to journey from recognizing the worst tragedies, but somehow, almost miraculously, we need to do the daunting task of moving beyond them, to move on without being mired in bitterness or self-pity. Almost immediately after Tisha B’Av we look towards a bright future that will be one of joy, unity and love.
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 M.Phil. in Medieval Arabic Thought from Oxford University as well as a B.A. 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 email@example.com.
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 Exxon Mobil 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Tisha B’Av teaches us that when faced with another’s pain, we can’t peer in at them from the edge. Rather, we must descend into that broken place — pushing through the protective reflexes that keep us from being vulnerable, that discomfort, shame and frustration — and join them. To say: I don’t know how to make this better. To say: I’m not sure I can completely understand your pain. To say: Regardless, I want to give you my compassion — not only in name, but in practice.
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 the Slingshot Guide for innovate Jewish organizations. 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 email@example.com.
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, will allow me to focus on my responsibility to stop global warming, to get out of the normal work of Elul (ben adam l’chavero wrongs) and glimpse for some sacred and haunting time, the vast destruction we are committing against the natural world and god (ben adam l’makom).
Angie Atkins, WGF Alum (MetroWest, NJ 08) has worked as the Director of Heritage Alumni at the Wexner Foundation since 2011. For 22 years before that, Angie founded, ran and then sold an international jewelry business that manufactured in Israel and wholesaled around the world. Angie and her husband Norman (WHP Alum, MetroWest, NJ 08) regularly host Shabbat minyans, meals and learning in their Upper West Side home. Angie currently represents her shul, Romemu, on a UJA-Federation council called SYNERGY which helps Manhattan synagogues share ideas that improve synagogue life; she also serves on the Romemu board. Angie is also involved at Mechon Hadar, the Ansche Chesed homeless shelter and LimmudNY. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Each year, I feel that the fast of Tisha B’Av helps me to anticipate the fast of Yom Kippur. Paradoxically, I don’t find Tisha B’Av the physical challenge that I find Yom Kippur and I attribute it to the ways in which the observance of Tisha B’Av doesn’t prohibit me from getting on my bicycle to go over and meet up with someone and even to go to work when it falls on a weekday. I am not bothered that my less observant family members, friends and colleagues may be eating because I hold Tisha B’Av like a mission, an important statement about the extent to which inhumanity can lead to destruction; those messages can be taken seriously and lead to action regardless of whether or not one is fasting. We usually don’t seek to be changed from a Tisha B’Av observance the way we hope for a personal transformation on Yom Kippur. And Tisha B’Av doesn’t demand synagogue attendance at the same, formal level that Yom Kippur demands. I kind of like the more informal, intimate summertime services.
As a rabbi, I recognize the value of communal mourning and observances, but I would be remiss if I didn’t share a story about the year that a friend of mine and I went backpacking together and experienced Tisha B’Av deep in the wilderness, far from any Jewish community. We weren’t looking to go backpacking on Tisha B’Av; it was the only time our calendars would allow us to go off for a few days. The two of us built a fire that evening at our campsite, and, as Eicha (Lamentations) would suggest, we sat by the ashes and read the book aloud in the firelight, chanting from a photocopy. We talked into the evening about that ancient time, about the ways in which great cities continue to experience destruction in different ways in our own day, about the terrible power of hate and about the fragility of our lives. In spite of the lack of community around us, my friend and I agreed that this had been one of the most powerful Jewish experiences of our lives for the isolation and despair that felt so palpable.
This year, I will be reading Lamentations, Chapter 1, at our synagogue’s observance of Tisha B’Av, and there in my beloved community, I look forward to hearing the other readers and to reading from Edward Baskin-illustrated large format book that I bring with me each year along with my backpacking headlamp. I know that I will conjure up memories of Tisha B’Av in the forest, but I also will appreciate that Tisha B’Av offers an opportunity for moral leadership. As a teacher and school rabbi, and as leader of my school’s Derech Eretz Honor Council, I anticipate that the sounds and words of Eicha (Lamentations) will inspire me to continue to think about bringing an end to the destructive speech and destructive behavior that brought us down in the past and that has the potential to divide us in the present. School will be opening soon and my observance this year of Tisha B’Av may help to shape what I carry with me into the fall.
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 email@example.com.