In the summer of 1983 or ’84, when I was living on the Upper West Side, I received a telephone call from Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, who was the rabbi of the Jewish Center at that time, and who also was, as he still is, a close personal friend.
(Two parenthetical notes. First, I have taken the liberty of referring to Rabbi Schacter in the remainder of this personal essay as “JJ,” the name I use when speaking with him, rather than by his honorifics, as I would do in a more formal piece of writing or setting. It’s a reflection of our friendship, and in no way detracts from the deep respect I have for his scholarship and professional standing. Second, neither JJ nor I are positive about the year of this telephone call; we know it couldn’t have been later than 1984 though I think it was 1983. For purposes of this column, I’m following my personal sense of history, though I’d greatly appreciate it if any reader could more definitively establish the exact year from the information below.)
JJ was calling for a favor. He told me that in the past he spent many a Tisha B’Av learning from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav) in the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts. After shacharit, the Rav would first deliver a shiur on issues relevant to Tisha B’Av, and then, until late in the afternoon, would recite, explain, comment on, and discuss selected kinot (elegies) that comprise the day’s liturgy. (For a more detailed description of the Rav’s Tish B’Av teaching, see the introduction to Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter’s 2006 compilation of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s “The Lord is Righteous in All His Ways: Reflections in the Tishah be-Av Kinot” from the MeOtzar HaRav series. The book contains edited transcripts of many of the Rav’s Tisha B’Av classes.)
JJ said he wanted to try an experiment and emulate in his shul what the Rav did in Brookline. I told him it sounded great, but I wondered what the favor was. Simple; he asked me to attend. While I immediately said yes, I expressed surprise. I wasn’t a member of his shul and he didn’t, as a rule, invite me to Jewish Center services. He explained that since the program would be separate from the Center’s regular Tisha B’Av prayer services and would be held in the small upstairs beit midrash rather than in the main sanctuary, he had to make sure that there would be a minyan.
It turned out that he didn’t need me for the minyan – but not by much. Only about 15 adult men (and several women) attended what turned out to be an extraordinary day of learning.
Fast forward several decades. The program is still going strong, but it’s not quite the same. Instead of being held in a small upstairs beit midrash with about 20 attendees, in recent years (before covid) it was held in a large synagogue sanctuary under the auspices of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, where JJ is the Senior Scholar. He spoke before a live audience, filled to overflowing on both sides of the mechitzah, with a streaming video to thousands of (virtual) attendees world-wide – attendees of all ages, as the attached picture demonstrates. (Note: it was actually my son-in-law Jason, in Toronto, who was listening to the program on his computer; my adorable granddaughter Aviva was just keeping him (and JJ) company.)
Though I was no longer needed to help make a minyan, I continued to attend almost every year even after I moved from the UWS to Teaneck, with the exceptions of JJ’s interregnum in Brookline between his UWS and Teaneck sojourns, and the last two covid years.
With the decline of covid, the program has resumed this year under the auspices of Ohr Torah Stone in cooperation with Yeshiva University. This year it’s moved to Jerusalem, and JJ, who is spending the summer there, will be teaching about “Mourning for Jerusalem … in Jerusalem: Lessons from the Kinot for our Time” at Midreshet Lindenbaum from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. That, of course, is Israel time, and I’m not inclined to get up at 2:00 a.m. on a fast day even for JJ. But not to worry. There will be a delayed showing, so we in America can log on at any time and start from the beginning.
There’s one additional special aspect to this year’s program. If my sense of the year of our telephone call is correct, the program is celebrating its 40th anniversary. (And if I’m wrong and it began in 1984, I can always ask my editor to rerun this column next year.) The Mishna in the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:21), my go-to text for anniversaries, teaches that ben arba’im lebinah – 40 is the age of wisdom. And wisdom is truly the perfect word to describe this program on its 40th anniversary; the wisdom that JJ exhibited 40 years ago in following the Rav’s lead, and the hundreds of thousands of words of wisdom that he imparted over the past 40 Tisha B’Avs.
But I have to disagree slightly with something JJ says every year at the beginning of his shiur. He always references the many Tish B’Avs he spent learning with the Rav, notes that he modeled his program after the Rav’s, and expresses hakarat hatov (gratitude) to the Rav for not only being an inspiration to him but also for “open[ing] up the book of Kinot … and revolutioniz[ing] our thinking about Tisha B’Av, the hurban [destruction of the Temple], and Jewish national tragedy in general.” (Introduction, “The Lord is Righteous in All His Ways.”)
All that is true, of course, but it misses one critical point. While the Rav inspired JJ, had JJ not acted on that inspiration, had he not taken a leap of faith in 1983 and started a program that he was unsure would attract even a minyan, and had he not continued that program year after year, while adding modern technology to make it accessible around the globe, the Rav’s brilliant idea and teachings about Tisha B’Av might have been no more than an interesting historical memory for those few who were privileged to attend. It is, however, largely due to JJ’s efforts that the Rav’s impact is being felt not only through this program but also through the multitude of similar ones, adopting and adapting its format, that have proliferated in shuls and schools and institutions in so many communities around the world.
Thus, credit for the explosive growth and popularity of this idea, and the making of Tish B’Av and kinot meaningful and understandable to so many is due not only to the Rav but also, in large measure, to JJ.
I don’t remember who else was present in that small upstairs beit midrash 40 years ago. (If you were, I’d love it if you’d email me any memories you have of that day). But as someone who was there, I feel like those who were present in the Polo Grounds on October 3, 1951, or Yankee Stadium on October 8, 1956 – those who really were there, and not the hundreds of thousands who later claim to have been. No, I didn’t see baseball’s “shot heard ‘round the world” or the most perfect World Series game. But I too attended a unique and important event; I was present at the genesis of a tradition where a Torah teacher and major Modern Orthodox leader took an idea from his past, and with wisdom, vision, courage, skill, and perseverance, built for the future.