Each year, for more than 10 years, six Bergen County Reform synagogues have come together on Tisha B’Av to examine the themes of the holiday. This year’s gathering will take place at Teaneck’s Temple Emeth.
Describing the event as “an evening of study and introspection,” Rabbi Steven Sirbu, Emeth’s religious leader, said that with each of the six congregations taking turns to plan the program, “we have a chance to look at the meaning of Tisha B’Av in different ways. Every rabbi has a different philosophy” regarding the enduring themes of the day for Reform Jews.
The other five synagogues are Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, Avodat Shalom in River Edge, Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter, Temple Beth Or in the Township of Washington, and Temple Sinai in Tenafly.
This year, Rabbi Sirbu has invited a speaker, Rabbi Golan Ben-Horin, the religious leader of Reform Congregation Rosh Pina in Israel. “He’s been here several times,” Rabbi Sirbu said. “We have a connection to him. Having an Israeli Reform rabbi give his perspective will be a perfect way to explore these contradictions.”
“For Reform Jews, the main one is how we mourn the Temple when our theology and philosophy have moved beyond the Temple. And for Zionist Jews, it’s how do we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem when it has been restored and revitalized in our generation.”
Referring to publicity announcing the major themes of Rabbi Ben-Horin’s presentation, Rabbi Sirbu said, “The key sentence in the description is the one asking if commemoration is just sad nostalgia or does the destruction of the Temple serve as a call to action.” In his own view, he continued, “Tisha B’Av shouldn’t be ignored by Reform Jews. Part of our obligation is to consider all the competing values as part of our tradition and grapple with them.”
Rabbi Ben-Horin, now spending his ninth summer teaching a world religions course at Brandeis University, is married to the former Jenny Cohen of Teaneck, which explains his strong connection to Temple Emeth. “She made aliyah at 17 and now is working for equal rights for Jews and Arabs,” Rabbi Ben-Horin said about his wife. He is a third-generation Israeli Reform spiritual leader. The couple live in Haifa.
Ordained by HUC Jerusalem, with a doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York on Jewish pluralism, Ben-Horin has spent the past six years as the founding rabbi of Rosh Pina Reform Congregation and the director of the London-based Leo Baeck Rabbinical College’s Israel programs.
Establishing Rosh Pina — Israel’s northernmost Reform congregation — has been a “fascinating journey, creating something from nothing,” he said. While the dati (religious) and chiloni (secular) communities in Israel don’t agree on many things, “they both agree about what the corpus of Judaism is,” he continued. “They agree on what they’re talking about. But we,” he said, talking about the Conservative and Reform movements, “don’t agree on what the corpus is. We’re still creating.
“That throws Israelis off.
“The traditional structure of the synagogue is not relevant. There needs to be a new way of delivering Judaism as a way of life.” As one example, Rosh Pina has created a community garden, which the rabbi has dubbed a “beit midrash of the soul and soil.” While he is the only professional at the synagogue, “there is an amazing, committed, and talented group of lay leaders.”
The town of Rosh Pina has some 2,800 people. Of these, 50 families are connected to his religious community throughout the year in some way or other. “Part of what we did was reach out to people where they were,” he said, bringing the synagogue to members rather than the other way around. Working with the Israel equivalent of the local JCC, “we had the first public Tu B’Shevat seder as well as a bat mitzvah ceremony for an entire grade of sixth graders.”
The rabbi’s views on Tisha B’Av have been influenced by events in his own life.
“It starts with a personal story,” he said. “About 25 years ago I went to the Kotel with a mixed group of friends, men and women, and stones were thrown at us by Orthodox Jews. It was eye-opening.
“We were all reading the same text, Eicha, and both groups were influenced by the teaching that the destruction of the Temple was caused by sinat hinam,” baseless hatred. “Yet one group thought they had the right to attack those who had a different perspective.”
He pointed out that after the building of the Second Temple, some of the prophets maintained that the days of fasting should be days of joy, “to celebrate what is.” After the destruction of the Temple, however, they were reinstated as days of fasting.
“What is the message? Holding on to the mourning of past destruction at the expense of realizing our responsibility for rebuilding” is not appropriate, Rabbi Ben-Horin said. Rather, “we should take mourning and remembrance as a call to action and take full responsibility for rebuilding.”
He is not, however, suggesting that we rebuild the Temple.
The sages “knew that physicality was good only as a means to an end, not an end in itself,” he said. Israel is like a “family business,” he said, and “many different parts of the family want to affect how the business is going to run, what it looks like.” What Reform Jews need to do is to “wake up, and make sure that the design for the future is in keeping with our values. Israel exists. The question is, what type of Israel do we want?
“All of our support needs to go through the lens of remembering the past so that the future is built according to our values. Don’t make physicality the truth. It is where we are heading that we should strive for.”
Rabbi Ben-Horin said he would love to see Reform Jews sending Jewish organizations letters asking them what they are doing to further the ideals of pluralism and equality. If the letters receive a satisfactory response, then their writers should support those organizations. He stressed that this is not a political move but rather one targeted to the survival of Reform Judaism in Israel.
“I am a Reform rabbi in Israel and we are losing the battle,” he said. “It’s time to sound the alarm, to wake up. This is the best time. Remember the destruction.
“But we have to understand that this is not about the glory of the past but about the shape of the future. I need the support of my brothers and sisters here to move mountains, to make sure that Israel is in keeping with our value system.”
Who: Golan Ben-Horin, the rabbi of Rosh Pina Reform Congregation in Haifa
What: Will speak on “Destruction and Deconstruction: Past Tragedy, Present Threat, Possible Tikkun”
When: On July 21 at 7:30 p.m. Tisha B’Av service at 9 p.m.
Where: Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck
And also: All are welcome