Day of mourning also day of unity for Reform shuls
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Day of mourning also day of unity for Reform shuls

Five area Reform congregations will join on July 29 for a Tisha B’Av service, marking a renewed interest in the mournful holiday by the movement and new cooperation among area Reform synagogues.

Cong. Beth Am of Teaneck, Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter, Temple Beth Or of Washington Township, and Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly are cosponsoring the event with Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, which will host the service.

“I truly believe that it’s important for us as a Jewish community to stand together to remember the tragedies that have befallen us in the past,” said Avodat Shalom’s Rabbi Neal Borovitz, “and to stand together to not only ask God’s help as we lament the disasters of the past, but to turn to each other and other people of good will in the world to be God’s voice and hands in the world.”

Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the First Temple and the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, as well as the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. It later became a day of mourning for many major tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. The Reform movement did away with Tisha B’Av observances during the 19th century as a way to distance the movement from the sacrifices of the Temple period, Borovitz explained. During that time, as well, the movement did not envision a return to Zion or rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, and its leaders felt the commemoration was out of step with their vision for modern Judaism.

“When Zionism developed,” said Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Jordan Millstein, “the movement shifted on those positions but not on the rebuilding of the Temple.”

During the late 1970s, Tisha B’Av gained new followers in the Reform movement through its summer camps, which had the luxury of larger numbers during the months when synagogues typically see drop-offs because of vacations.

Millstein, who marks Tisha B’Av every year, first experienced the commemoration while at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Eisner in the Berkshires. Camp was a place for creativity, he said, which led to what he called “creative re-appropriation of Jewish tradition,” or reinterpreting traditions that had fallen by the wayside. Now, the rabbis of the Reform movement are more interested in Tisha B’Av as a way of recognizing the importance of the Jewish connection to Zion, Millstein added.

“A lot of people who were counselors and unit heads became the leadership of the movement,” he said. “They experienced these things at camp and now see them as opportunities for growth at synagogues.”

The program will include the traditional reading of the Book of Lamentations and a viewing of “Under Fire: Personal stories from the scorched summer of 2006,” as well as a talk by the film’s producer, Avi Naiman. This summer marks the third anniversary of the Second Lebanon War and the third anniversary of Hamas’ capture of Gilad Shalit.

Said Borovitz, “Showing ‘Under Fire’ before the reading of Lamentations reminds us that the task of establishing the right of the Jewish people, as it says in the end of the Hatikvah, to be a free people in our own land and in the land of Israel and Jerusalem remains a challenge almost 2,600 years after the destruction of the first Temple.”

A Tisha B’Av service is not a new phenomenon at Borovitz’s shul, but he acknowledged the difficulty of drawing large numbers to a summer event. Beth Am’s Rabbi Harvey Rosenfeld approached him with the same problem, and the joint service grew out of those discussions.

“We can achieve more together than we can do separately,” Rosenfeld said. “Tisha B’Av comes regrettably … at a time when many of our congregants are away. We decided to merge our resources and try to do more than we can do separately.”

Earlier in the year, presidents and rabbis of Reform synagogues from around Bergen County met in response to a nationwide call by the Reform movement’s leadership for its synagogues to work together more.

“We’re all sort of thinking in this direction,” said Rabbi Debra Hachen of Temple Beth El of Northern Valley in Closter. The Tisha B’Av service “is partly in response to that call for us to think, each time we do something, ‘Is this something we can share, create more connections among our congregants, and not be duplicating efforts?'”

For more information on the service, call Avodat Shalom at (201) 489-2463.

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