At the West End Synagogue, drawing connections to current events around the world has long been an integral part of commemorating Tisha B'Av - the Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. This year, though, the Reconstructionist congregation on Manhattan's Upper West Side will mourn a tragedy that hit a bit closer to home.
In the months following the destruction of the World Trade Center's twin towers last September 11, the congregation's ritual committee decided that the focus of this year's commemorations of Tisha B'Av - which falls this Wednesday night and Thursday - would be "the experience of living through, watching, an edifice be destroyed that has been a part of our daily lives," said Susan Schorr, the synagogue's lay liturgist.
The West End Synagogue is not alone. For many Jews across the country, preparations for Tisha B'Av, or the ninth day of the month of Av - traditionally marked by fasting and reading, while seated on the floor, from the Book of Lamentations - are taking on added meaning in the wake of the September 11 terror attacks, as well as the ongoing suicide bombings in Israel and the rising tide of antisemitism around the world. While in relatively peaceful years past, many congregations, especially those affiliated with the more liberal strains of Judaism, eschewed the elegiac holiday, this year rabbis are looking at the day as an opportunity to reflect on the current state of the Jewish people and even of the world at large.
Joshua Heller, a Conservative rabbi who currently works in a part-time capacity at lower Manhattan's Downtown Synagogue, which serves the neighborhoods adjacent to Ground Zero and saw many of its congregants displaced, said he understands why people would connect September 11 and Tisha B'Av. "We as Jews often look to recast the tragedies that we experience in our own times in light of the experiences of our ancestors," he said, noting that Tisha B'Av is traditionally associated not only with the Temples' destruction, but also with other calamities of Jewish history, such as the expulsion of Jews from Spain and, more recently, the Holocaust.
Rabbi Beth Singer of Temple Beth Am, a Reform congregation in Seattle, Wash., said that "among many Reform synagogues the observance of Tisha B'Av fell out, and it's kind of coming back in, in part, I think, because of the recent events." While her synagogue isn't hosting Tisha B'Av services, in her sermon for the first Sabbath of the three weeks of mourning leading up to Tisha B'Av, she addressed the relevance of observing the holiday in light of the ongoing acts of violence targeting Jews in Israel and elsewhere.
This year's Tisha B'Av also has special resonance for Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella organization for Conservative congregations in North America. "It reminds us of the fragility of Israel," Epstein said. "All of the significant occasions that Tisha B'Av commemorates are potentially possible again." He noted that Tisha B'Av also commemorates "major pogroms, major antisemitism" adding, "If you look at Europe today, it's not hard to imagine what potentially could happen to our people." He contrasted this Tisha B'Av with "a few years ago, when everybody said, 'Why should we even observe Tisha B'Av? Israel is so strong; Israel is flourishing.' And there was a tendency to say, 'Tisha B'Av is irrelevant.'"
Epstein, however, rejected the notion that the holiday is an appropriate occasion for commemorating September 11. "It should be commemorating Jewish tragedy," he said. "There are other occasions, and very appropriate occasions, for commemorating either national tragedy in America or worldwide tragedy."
Rabbi Moshe Krupka, the national director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union, said that the O.U. has put forward programs for Tisha B'Av and the three weeks of mourning preceding it that deal with the crisis in Israel and the rise in antisemitism. These, Krupka said, are "more germane to the inner meaning" of the holiday than is September 11.
"Our rabbis tell us that Tisha B'Av is historically a day on which we commemorate the persecution and the terrible events that have befallen Jewish people throughout history." September 11, he said, "is certainly a modern-day example of what one human being can perpetrate on other human beings. It's an example of cruelty, it's an example of terror, which are themes of Tisha B'Av, but it's not the goal, the objective, the educational thrust of what the day represents."
But Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, vice president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said that making the connection between September 11 and Tisha B'Av is "intuitively right." After the destruction of the Temples, Hirschfield said, "the Jewish people spent relatively little time thinking about what was lost and much more time asking, 'Now that that's over, what's next?' It would be really interesting if, at this moment... the Jewish people could take that wisdom that has been inside of us since the destruction of that Temple, that wisdom that allows us to ask 'What's next?' at a time when most people are paralyzed by tragedy, to share that with America."
In planning Tisha B'Av services, the goals of liturgist Schorr of the West End Synagogue are somewhat more modest. "I think all of us are still, to some extent or another, grappling with September 11, and the opportunity to spend time the way I will on this is going to give me a chance to think about and spend some time with my own responses to the material, and that's useful work to do for yourself," said Schorr. "I hope that it will turn out to be useful for the congregation."