עַל אֵלֶּה | אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה עֵינִי | עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם כִּי רָחַק מִמֶּנִּי מְנַחֵם מֵשִׁיב נַפְשִׁי הָיוּ בָנַי שׁוֹמֵמִים כִּי גָבַר אוֹיֵב: פֵּרְשָׂה צִיּוֹן בְּיָדֶיהָ אֵין מְנַחֵם לָהּ
For these things, I cry out. My eye, my eye pours down water, because the comfort that would restore my soul is far from me. My children are desolate, because the enemy has prevailed. Zion spreads open hands, but she has no comfort. Lamentations 1:16-17a
Churches are burning again in the United States, and I am swept back two decades.
It was June of 1996 and I had just arrived back on the East Coast and was trying to integrate into my community at Hebrew Union College in New York. I received a note from Rabbi Nancy Wiener, one of the faculty at HUC, who invited anyone who was interested to travel with her and some other student volunteers to Boligee, Alabama. There, working out of a Quaker Workcamp, we would volunteer for a week to help re-build some of the churches burned in a wave of hate-filled arson that had swept through black churches in the South.
The experience was transformative. Travelling with cantorial and rabbinic students, I felt proud that this could be my job – to travel with my congregants to place ourselves and our hands in service of others in need. The hospitality was humbling. The church women refused to let us bring our own food the jobsite – they insisted on cooking for us, every day. They said it was the least that they could do.
I felt good about the spackling and sanding that I was doing, but I did not quite understand until Tisha b’Av. Named after the date at which we are told that the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the Romans burned the second Temple in 70 CE, it is the only other full day of fasting and mourning in the Jewish tradition, besides Yom Kippur. As a Reform Jew, the holiday had been of historical interest to me, but I failed to grasp the visceral impact of losing one’s house of worship – until our group decided to hold our Tisha b’Av commemoration at the former site of the church we had come to rebuild.
These churches were small – hardly more than a central room for worship, an office, and a kitchen. We stood on the blackened ground of the sanctuary and, as the sun set, were surrounded by the grave markers of at least a century of parishioners. These local churches were small in population as well – only a few families, who had been members for generations, whose families were buried surrounding their worship home. The law did not allow this community to build in what had become a cemetery, and so their new house of worship – although strong and clean, would stand alone several miles down the road, without the presence of loved ones.
For me, that was when it hit home. I thought about how I had felt when I lost the synagogue that I grew up in – the loss of a place to come home to at the High Holy Days; the place that I had known I would see the same faces (a little older), in the same seats. But, that Temple still exists, I was just no longer a member. How much more the loss by our ancestors, with no place to travel to at each pilgrimage holiday, no direction to turn when praying, no high hill to stand on and look out over the capital, the graves of ancestors, the history of generations, the promise of a people.
Three years later, in my first year at my present congregation, we learned of a fire set at a friend’s congregation. That Tisha B’Av, I asked each congregant to find a place in our building where they had a special memory. We travelled from room to room, picking up people and hearing their stories, building a mental map of our Temple. Finally, we each made a fabric square, illustrating and completing the phrase, “A Temple is a House of….” which were sewn together into a quilt which we sent to Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento.
We see Tisha b’Av as a grand historical moment – the transition from animal sacrifice to prayer and rabbinic Judaism. Our Reform forebears saw it as a moment to be celebrated – the beginning of our mission into the greater world, to be a light among the nations, not apart. And yet, there is the personal sense of loss that we have forgotten: the pew no longer present; the yahrzeit plaque melted into slag; the prayerbooks scattered and burned.
In reaching out to others, I rediscovered the loss of my people. In feeling that loss, I was able to see not only what they had lost, but what it meant to them for us to be there, just to show with our physical presence that they were not alone, not abandoned, that not everyone wanted to wipe their home of worship from the earth.
On Tisha b’Av, we read from what is called in English, Lamentations, in Hebrew, Eicha. Eicha is a barely articulate cry – “How?” How can this have happened? How can I deal with this loss? How can I face a new reality, when my rock has been shattered? We may have no answers to this plea, but we have actions to share the burden. We will walk from Selma to Washington, DC with the NAACP’s Journey for Justice and we will say: Tell us of your pain. We may not be able to fully understand it, but we can listen; we can try to carry some of that weight. We can say, we will not let someone do this to you again, without putting ourselves in their way.
Eicha – how? How can we do anything else?
Rabbi Joel N. Abraham serves Temple Sholom of Scotch Plains/Fanwood, NJ.
Tisha b’Av (July 25-26) is considered the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. It is the day when we mourn our various destructions and exiles, and in many communities is marked by fasting, reading the Book of Lamentations, and the rituals of mourning. For the last several years, Reform CA has used this holiday as an opportunity to gather to reflect on the brokenness and alienation still present in society and recommit ourselves to the sacred call to repair. Wherever you find yourself this Tisha B’Av– alone or in congregation, at camp or at home– we hope this resource, about the urgent need for racial justice helps you refocus and rededicate yourself, firmly rooted in our Jewish tradition. This was created by Rabbi Jessica Oleon Kirschner of Reform CA and Rabbi Joel Simonds of RAC-West.