My rabbi once told me that the holiday of Tisha B’Av had been “saved” by Jewish summer camps.
While summer is known universally as the time for fun, the solemn, less known Jewish holiday that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem thousands of years ago occur during the hot, long days of summertime. Not studied during the school year, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av is fully experienced as the only holiday celebrated in immersive summer environments.
In many ways, Jewish summer camps kept Tisha B’Av on the educational calendar and presents a relevant message for our entire community.
I found my own personal connection to this holiday during my summers many years ago which have remained with me and perhaps even strengthened over time. I remember so clearly walking amid candlelights into the Beit Am, where we sat on the floor, and experienced the haunting trope (melody) of Megilat Eicha (Book of Lamentations). In addition to Eicha, the singing of the kinot like Eli Tzion, with its solemn, repetitive tune and deep meaning always spoke to me and remains a highlight of the day.
I think about the power of those sounds which are unique for this holiday. Just as our sages developed a unique sound/melody for the High Holidays — which conjures up powerful memories and connection points — so too the powerful sounds of Tisha B’Av, in my case encountered at camp for the first time, have been forever imprinted in my mind and my soul. I cherish these melodies as my connection point to all that the holiday represents.
I remember, too, the bonfires later in the evening, which provided a time of introspection and action, as we reflected on themes like Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World) and Gemilut Hasadim (Acts of Lovingkindness). The mood of the 24 hours encouraged knowing we were part of something greater than ourselves and connected to all of Jewish history.
Usually a day of fasting and introspection, camp directors have grappled with how to acknowledge this sad holiday during the fun, carefree days of camp. Some will argue that Tisha B’Av may not be an easy or simple Jewish holy day to observe, practically, emotionally, and ideologically in today’s generation. Jewish camps use Tisha B’Av to effectively transmit Jewish values and a deeper connection to Israel and to the Jewish people. What I have witnessed in camps across North America, though, gives me encouragement that camp directors and educators are finding new, creative ways to bring meaning and relevance to the day.
The educational themes of the holiday include a range of Jewish values and provide for rich discussions among campers and counselors. These include, for example, baseless hatred vs. brotherly love (ahavat chinam, sin’at chinam); mourning; anti-Semitism; national tragedy and dealing with crises; collective memory; exile to redemption; Temple times; identification with events that happened thousands of years ago; and social responsibility.
One of the most powerful programmatic approaches came as result of a visit to Israel. Although I have never personally experienced the Yom Hashoah or Yom HaZikaron sirens, I certainly have been moved by the pictures or videos of the entire country coming to a two-minute stop. Cars on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv at a complete standstill. Young and old, secular and religious, sabra and visitor, all stopping to reflect on the sound and the meaning behind it.
One camp director, having experienced the siren on Yom Hazikaron first hand, decided to bring it back to camp. He told the story one Shabbat to his entire camp community, explaining what he experienced and how he felt. A few days later, on Tisha B’Av, he played the two-minute siren over the camp’s loudspeaker. Everyone came to a stop in whatever activity in which they were involved. On the sports field. At the waterfront. In the Arts & Crafts pavilion. Everyone stopped for two minutes, followed immediately by an extended discussion of what they experienced and how they felt. They all connected the experience to Israel, to a deeper connection with one another, and to being a part of the global Jewish community. A powerful and lasting memory created in a contemporary way on Tisha B’Av.
I heard of another dramatic program which worked to link the significance of this holiday with our shared history. Using cardboard boxes, campers and counselors together built a mini replica of the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The camp community then took turns placing notes into the cracks of the boxes, expressing their hopes and fears, reflecting on their lessons, and connecting themselves to Jerusalem and to Jewish history. With everyone gathered safely at a distance, the camp director then set the boxes ablaze, vividly commemorating the destruction of millennia ago and of our vulnerabilities today.
All of us could benefit from the creativity of camp directors and educators to bring the contemporary messages of Tisha B’Av to the forefront. Just as campers discuss how to fight against baseless hatred and how to spread a spirit of kindness and love in camp, so too we can find ways to accept one another and to fight the tensions which pull apart our community. Campers pledge to keep animosity out of camp by sharing, by helping those in need, and by encouraging those who may be a bit down. Can’t we do the same?
Years have passed since those long summer days at camp where Tisha B’Av became imprinted in my being. Yet the message of the holiday seems even more relevant to me today.