By Rabbi Aviva Fellman
Tisha B’Av marks a communal day of mourning for the Jewish people. It is a day on which we mark the destruction of the First Temple (by the Babylonians in 586 BCE), the Second Temple (by the Romans in 70 CE), multiple expulsions, and pogroms. The day is observed by reading from Eicha (Lamentations), sitting low to the ground, not wearing leather, refraining from food and drink. The whole tone of the day is solemn.
For the past 7 years, since moving to Worcester to serve the Congregation Beth Israel and community, my Tisha B’Av has started the same way. I have eaten an earlier dinner with my family, and then headed to shul for services and Eicha. This year was the same, only it felt so different.
The evening service opened with these words:
V’hu rachum yechaper avon v’lo yashchit – God is compassionate and will wipe away sin, not wreak destruction,
V’hirbah l’hashiv apoh v’lo yair kol-chamato – For again and again God acts with restraint, refusing to let rage become all-consuming,
Adonai hoseah hamelech yaanenu b’yom koreinu – Adonai-help us – surely our sovereign will answer us at the hour of our calling.
While these words start each evening service, last night, on a day of such intense observance of mourning and loss, they seemed much more poignant. The mourning and loss this year feels different and personal. We are mourning not only the Jewish historical events that pre-dated even the honored elders of our community but this year we are also mourning the loss of family, neighbors, and friends. As Tisha B’Av was beginning this year, the death toll from COVID-19 hit 150,000 in the US alone. We are mourning our sense of security and safety. We are mourning the sense of danger that permeates every interaction outside of our home. We are mourning the sense of brokenness in the structures that helped to make us feel secure- our routines, being able to see the faces of others, of seeing family, of gathering to celebrate and mourn, of singing, and of being able to hug others.
There was and is a great sense of loss, and yet, when I got to the next words of the service, I started tearing, sobbing really – large, messy, happy tears. As I moved through the service and started reciting the words of the Barchu, I could no longer hold back. Why? What was different? I felt such an overwhelming flood of emotion. These nine words were so familiar and yet felt so new. Maariv for Erev Tisha B’Av, the service that I was leading, was the first time in 4.5 months that we had gathered for services in person at the synagogue. (We officially closed the building on March 13th.) The Barchu prayer is only recited in the presence of a physical minyan and in the period since we closed the physical building and moved our community worship online, we have omitted it from all services.
It felt comforting, familiar, and special to recite the words and so new and fresh. Had it not been for the otherwise solemn tone of the day, I might have interrupted the service to recite a Shehechiyanu, a blessing that is said upon new experiences (including not having seen someone in over 30 days), but it was Tisha B’Av and it did not feel appropriate.
So I cried. I cried and I cried and I kept leading. As I teared into my mask, hoping that my voice would still carry over the microphone to the 16 congregants behind me in the room and hallway and to the 30 devices at home pictured on the screen in front of me, it made me realize how much I had really missed being able to daven (pray) with the support and voices of community.
Last night was not perfect and I don’t want to claim that it was. There were a few glitches that we will work through, although wonderfully far fewer than we expected. Technology and safety will always be a work-in-progress and we will continue to try and make the service, the space, and the streaming as smooth and clear as possible. We are indebted to the members of our synagogue family who have been calling Beth Israel their home and continue join us in community. Our Security/Health and Safety, Reopening, Facilities, Medical, and Ritual committees and task forces have been working tirelessly and then some to get us to this point with intention, caution, communication, drive, patience, and sensitivity. Our staff have kept the building and community operating and running often behind the scenes, I am appreciative of how resilient and supportive they have been.
This morning as I read Eicha on our Zoom Shacharit service, I had sad tears in my eyes. Zoom now feels so comfortable and normal and yet it does not compare to gathering in person. On Zoom, I can let my guard down a little. I don’t have to wear a mask. If bodies are getting too close to mine, I don’t feel that I need to recoil because those bodies live in the same house. And I can see the faces of others making it feel like a community. But it is no comparison to in-person. Last night reminded me of how much I had missed davening with our community, raising our voices in song, catching up and checking in with each other. It makes me want more and knowing that it is limited is hard.
The line that closes our Eicha reading (really second to last line that is repeated again at the end) is, “Take us back, O LORD, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!” Throughout the day of Tisha B’Av, there is a gradual shift as we rise from our mourning. I pray and long for the day when we can gather again regularly in-person. Until then, I will mourn that loss and rise to embrace the safe and secure routine that has become Zoom and work hard to continue to build ways for us to gather and build community even without the physical closeness and communal singing.
“See” you soon in-person or online.
Aviva Fellman is rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester.