Reform shuls to focus on Haiti during joint Tisha B’Av service
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Reform shuls to focus on Haiti during joint Tisha B’Av service

Six Reform congregations will join forces July 19 to mark Tisha B’Av, the ancient Jewish day of mourning, and raise awareness of the continuing crisis in Haiti as the country struggles to rebuild after January’s devastating earthquake.

The program marks the second year the Reform congregations have come together for Tisha B’Av. Because the holiday usually falls in the middle of the summer, it is largely observed within the Reform movement only in summer camps. Temple Sinai of Bergen County will host the program, co-organized by Temples Avodat Shalom in River Edge, Beth El of the Northern Valley in Closter, Emeth of Teaneck, and Congs. Beth Am of Teaneck and Beth Or of Washington Township.

“Tisha B’Av is the memorial day on the Jewish calendar when we remember the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, and the overall theme of suffering and coping with suffering is so important on that day,” said Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Jordan Millstein. “We thought it’d be important to find a connection to today.”

Sinai, Avodat Shalom, Beth Am of Teaneck, Temple Beth El, and Beth Or last year related Tisha B’Av to the Second Lebanon War.

“Tisha B’Av is about human choices,” said Avodat Shalom’s Rabbi Neal Borovitz. “The message and the tie-in to contemporary tragic issues of death and destruction is: How do we make the memory of those moments teaching opportunities so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past?”

The Haiti component will feature John Coppolino, co-founder of Sending Our Love to Haiti, a coalition of synagogues, churches, and individuals in northern New Jersey that works to raise money and awareness; Samuel Davis, president and founder of the Burn Advocates Network Ltd., which aids burn survivors; Thomas Bojko, senior vice chair of clinical affairs of the Department of Pediatrics at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; and Temple Sinai member Caren Zucker, a producer for ABC news programs who went to Haiti with her 13-year-old son Jonah through the organization Operation Blessing.

“Just as last summer people weren’t thinking about the Second Lebanon War and the ongoing trauma that Israeli families affected by that war were having and continue to have, we felt that this year the tragedy of Haiti is out of sight and out of mind,” Borovitz said. “There’s still a terrible tragedy going on there.”

Haiti is not just a natural disaster but also a political one, Borovitz continued. Rebuilding Haiti requires the political will and economic support of the world, he said, adding that while Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning, it also ushers in a season of hope.

“It’s the turning point of the year when we start to focus on the hope of Rosh HaShanah,” he said. “The despair of Tisha B’Av requires us to take action. It’s not just to pray to God for help but to act as if it depends on us – because it does. Prayer and action have to come together.”

After the speakers, rabbis and cantors of the six synagogues will chant passages of the Book of Lamentations, which tells the story of the destruction of Jerusalem.

When Millstein first came to Temple Sinai two years ago, the congregation did not observe Tisha B’Av. Last year, he and Borovitz began planning for a joint observance.

“We decided that evening that we were going to make this a tradition of the Reform synagogues of Bergen County,” Borovitz said.

Temple Emeth is new to the joint ceremony this year, but, Rabbi Steven Sirbu pointed out, the synagogue has participated in Tisha B’Av services around the area for five years.

“Because Tisha B’Av is not ideologically a strong part of the Reform calendar, we were there much more to learn than to be full collaborative partners,” he said. “We can all struggle with and reinterpret Tisha B’Av together as part of the Reform tradition. Reform Jews at heart don’t mourn the destruction of the Temple as a means to pray for its rebuilding. Therefore, the way that we mourn that destruction is very different.”

Reform Jews look to the future for the restoration of the Jewish people, Sirbu continued, and the Temple is not a model for that future.

Millstein first experienced Tisha B’Av at summer camp in the 1970s. At each of the three synagogues where he has worked, he has introduced the observance and, he believes, it has lasted. Though the day was not observed early on in the Reform movement, he said, it provides an opportunity for a creative and meaningful connection to Jewish tradition.

“This is really one observance where no Reform synagogue can go it alone and have a really meaningful program,” Sirbu said. “We need each other to do Tisha B’Av in a way that will really speak to people.”

The program, which is open to the public, begins at 7:30 p.m. For more information, call (201) 568-3035.

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