Overlooked, minimized, and often disregarded, Tisha B’Av is a holy day that many modern Jews struggle to connect with and choose to ignore. Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, commemorates multiple tragedies faced by the Jewish people and focuses on the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem thousands of years ago. Jews who observe Tisha B’Av mourn the loss of the Temple, abstain from food and joyous activities, and reflect on the periods of Jewish exile.
Tisha B’Av occurs in July or August, a time when a number of fortunate Jewish children attend Jewish summer camp. Destruction, exile, and fasting are not simple conversation topics, and the leadership at many camps choose to avoid observing and teaching Tisha B’Av. Their concerns are understandable: What if a depressing day of mourning produces a storm of negativity and sadness that could crush camp morale? What if campers and staff choose to fast and become ill? Ignoring the holiday altogether appears easier than addressing these concerns and creating a Tisha B’Av program that will engage children and staff of diverse maturity levels.
Some Jews find it challenging to commemorate a Holy Day that focuses on tragedy, destruction, and exile. But the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people are crucial pieces to the Jewish story and identity. When Jews ignore Tisha B’Av, they lose out on learning major lessons and core Jewish values. These lessons and values have the potential to inspire the Jewish people and their children, especially in modern times. One important component to Tisha B’Av is Jewish peoplehood.
Tragedy, destruction, and exile led to the dispersal of the Jewish people. Although the Jewish people do not all live in one land and share one Temple, they do share a deep bond—their covenant with God. The Jewish people may be in a long-distance relationship, but the Jewish people are one. Jewish peoplehood means that, although Jews find themselves scattered, they are united; the Jewish people strive to hold each other’s hands and work together in partnership with God to improve the world.
Jewish summer camps have an incredible opportunity to give children a meaningful and memorable Tisha B’Av experience that will strengthen their Jewish identity. This summer, I completed my fellowship at URJ Goldman Union Camp Institute—GUCI—in Zionsville, Indiana. I worked as a unit head for fifth- and sixth-grade campers. I found it essential for my staff and campers to have a Tisha B’Av experience, but I did not want to create an activity that would focus solely on destruction or fasting. I worked with my best friend and classmate, Alexandra Fox, and we created a Tisha B’Av program focusing on Jewish peoplehood.
The campers started the program in one auditorium, where they learned the historical significance of Tisha B’Av. We told them to imagine that their Temple was destroyed and they were now going to be moved to different countries. Each child received a card with a country’s name, and then each child put on a blindfold. Counselors stationed at six different countries led the campers on a journey to their new country located in different parts of camp.
Once the children arrived in their new country, they participated in a small group discussion where they thought about the following questions: What might it feel like to be forced to move to a foreign land? What might it feel like to have your most sacred place destroyed right in front of you? Should you fight to hold onto your Judaism, or should you give up on your Judaism and conform to your new society? Campers realized that one reason we celebrate Judaism today is because of our ancestors’ passion and determination to hold onto Judaism—to pass this beautiful religion down to their children no matter how dangerous the consequences.
After this simulation exercise, the campers reunited in the auditorium, and we sang “Am Yisrael Chai.” We celebrated the fact that the Jewish people lives, even after the destruction of our Temple and the exile from our land! Jews live in different countries and pray in different synagogues, but Jews are connected as a people. As we commemorated the destruction of our Temple, we became thankful that Jews all over the world continue to celebrate our religion.
Fortunately for many of the GUCI campers, this was a game—a fun simulation activity that made them think. We spoke about the fact that for other Jews, maintaining Judaism in a foreign land is not a game—it is life. Some Jews struggle to celebrate their Judaism because they are the minority; because they experience anti-Semitism; and because of a lack of Jewish resources, knowledge, and community.
As the GUCI campers learned about Tisha B’Av and Jewish peoplehood, they spoke about the importance of reaching out to Jews all over the world. For the final part of the program, the campers wrote letters to campers at Szarvas, a Jewish summer camp in Hungary. Every summer, around 1500 Jewish campers from more than 30 countries spend their summer at Camp Szarvas. Children and teenagers from ages 8-18 attend, and these youth are from diverse Jewish cultural and religious backgrounds. Szarvas was established in 1990 to serve campers from Eastern and Central European countries. As more Jews heard about the camp’s success, children from countries such as India, Turkey, and Israel began signing up as well.
The goal of Szarvas is to launch Jewish journeys; the camp serves as a cornerstone experience that helps children begin or continue to fill their “Jewish backpack.” While some campers come from flourishing Jewish communities, other children are unaware of their Jewish identity until they arrive at camp. Some of these children have never prayed in a synagogue on Yom Kippur, eaten matzos on Pesach, or spun a dreidel on Chanukah. When they come to Szarvas, they have an authentic Jewish experience and meet Jews from all over the world. They also teach the other children about what it is like in their communities.
Szarvas has a unique fellowship program for eleventh and twelfth graders from North America to come to Szarvas and represent North American Jewry. This fellowship allows Szarvas campers to learn about how Judaism is celebrated in North America and to make friendships and connections with North American Jews. Szarvas epitomizes Jewish peoplehood and serves as a community where a diverse group of Jews form relationships, acknowledge their differences, and celebrate their Jewish identity.
The GUCI campers enjoyed learning about Szarvas. Some of the GUCI campers come from schools and communities where they are the only Jews around. For these campers, the only Jewish children they know are campers at GUCI. As they began to think about campers celebrating Shabbat, playing sports, and learning Hebrew—just like them but far away in Hungary—they realized that the Jewish People is bigger than they imagined.
In their letters, the GUCI campers asked the Szarvas campers questions like: “Is it hard to be Jewish where you live?” “What do you like about being Jewish?” “How do you celebrate Judaism with your friends and family?” “What do you like to do for fun at camp?” The GUCI campers had the opportunity to examine their Jewish identity and think about Jewish children all over the world who experience Judaism differently.
Tisha B’Av reminds Jews that, thousands of years ago, the Jewish people suffered tragedy, losing the precious Temple which united them. We pray that the Jewish people will grow more and more united in the future. United will not necessarily mean living in the same land. United will mean taking responsibility for each other—lending support to every Jew—and caring for the Jewish people, near and far.