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Observing Tisha B’Av at Camp

By Rabbi Rachel Akerman

I was a counselor at a Jewish sleep away camp the first time I remember observing Tisha B’Av. We sat on the floor in a dark room listening to the mournful melody of Eicha, we contemplated loss, some individuals fasted (as Tisha B’Av, like Yom Kippur, includes the observance of a full-day fast). Unlike many of our Jewish observances, Tisha B’Av is not a festival and we do not refrain from work, so summer camp still went on, as we set out for our overnight during the day of Tisha B’Av.

Fifteen years have passed since that summer and many of those summers have been spent at one Jewish sleep away camp or another. I have been fascinated with the various ways our Jewish camping communities grapple with this day, trying to determine how to best observe what is traditionally known as the saddest day on the Jewish calendar in our happiest of places.

During my eight summers on faculty at URJ Camp Harlam, there have been a number of summers when Tisha B’Av has fallen during the weeks I’ve had the privilege to be at camp. One summer I remember sitting on the floor of Temple Sinai in Washington, DC with the Chavurah campers listening to those same words of Eicha being chanted that I first remembered hearing a decade before. I was fascinated by the conversations that I had with campers who chose to fast during the trip, breaking it at the Nationals game the next evening, one camper telling me the story of his grandparents who survived the Holocaust, another who wanted to try on a new ritual.

There was the summer I asked the Carmel campers to build the most beautiful temple they could out of cups before their counselors toppled them and we talked about what it feels like to have something you worked hard on, if only for only a few minutes, destroyed.

And then there was this summer.

This summer was one of the few where I’ve ever truly felt a yearning to observe Tisha B’Av. But not at camp. This summer Jewish organizations and communities around the country, including the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, have chosen to observe Tisha B’Av as a call to action to protest the actions of ICE as they held #CloseTheCamps vigils and protests.

If I was at home I’d be at a vigil or a protest. But I’m at camp. And I’m so glad to be.

As a faculty cohort we talked about what we wanted Tisha B’Av to look like for the campers and staff. What tone should be set? What messages of hope might we offer? And what are the issues that are calling out to our young people that could be truly processed on Tisha B’Av.

As we made our way to an all-camp Havdalah and Tisha b’Av service, the Sharon campers asked questions, particularly focused around whether there would be a “fake-break” for Maccabiah. They speculated with each other about whether this would be a possible end to the evening, arguing about whether it would even be appropriate, given that we were going to some service about something called Tisha B’Av that was supposed to be about something very sad.

The service was beautiful, led by Head Song Leader Emily Marder, Chavurah campers sharing poetry they wrote reflecting on their learning about the Holocaust, Rabbi Ben David sharing the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza which warns us of the outcomes of sinat chinam, senseless hatred, and we listened the mournful melody of Eicha being chanted by Cantor Rebecca Robbins.

We explained to Galil, K’far Noar, and Chavurah that some Jews choose to fast on this day and gave them the option to do so with study opportunities during the meals. In addition to studying Eicha we offered sessions on refugees to accompany the actions around the country today as well as reflecting on the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh and how anti-semitism affects us today.

I sat outside with nearly 40 members of our campers and staff on Tisha B’Av during lunch as they moved through their fast. We spoke about Pittsburgh, two members of the group sharing what it was like to live in Pittsburgh during the tragedy, others sharing about what it meant to go to synagogue the next day, talking about how their peers responded to them in school, sharing the experience of feeling isolated living in a small Jewish community where it seemed like the larger community didn’t care. They talked about their fears, security at their synagogues, what it means for Judaism to be an act of courage, and how this shooting profoundly changed them. It was incredibly powerful.

And, I asked them to each share why they were fasting. Their answers ranged from feeling an obligation to fast having observed their b’nai mitzvah earlier this year, feeling like fasting was a significant way to mark the atrocities that have befallen the Jewish people, wanting to feel more connected to this observance which was new for them, as well as the strong pull to mark Jewish time and space while they were in Jewish community.

And it occurred to me that Jewish summer camp is one of the only places where you truly observe all of Tisha B’Av in community. At home we might go to synagogue for a service, then maybe head to work or out and about our business and daily lives. Maybe we’ll go to a vigil as well. Maybe we’ll fast. But for the most part we are with our community for only a few hours at a time on this day, if any. But on the afternoon of Tisha B’Av I sat in a circle of nearly 40 individuals, halfway through the observance, who were having a shared experience for (up to) three meals and during the time in between, living in Jewish time and space, choosing to study together throughout the day, to think about what it means to try and make this observance relevant to their progressive Jewish selves and process it with their best of friends.

So, no, I wasn’t at a vigil today. But I was here, with campers who came to their own conclusion that it wouldn’t in fact be appropriate to have a “fake-break” of Maccabiah at the end of the service marking the beginning of Tisha B’Av. I watched teens file out of the Chader Ochel  (dining hall) as breakfast began to talk about refugees and the call to action they might feel on this day. I sat with dozens of teens and young adults as they processed the greatest Jewish tragedy to occur during their lifetimes as they explored their own personal Jewish practices in relationship to this very complicated day.

Camp Harlam walked me through what this day means to me this year as we live in a radically different world than when I first observed Tisha B’Av at a Jewish sleep away camp.

And I’m so grateful for the opportunity to learn, pray, grow, and process what Tisha B’Av means for me right now, here, all day, in this very significant community.

Some people think the faculty come to camp to help engage campers and staff as they move along their Jewish journeys. And sometimes that’s the case. But Tisha B’Av is a reminder about how camp continues to truly help the faculty along our own Jewish journey. And for that I am incredibly grateful.

Thank you Camp Harlam, for welcoming me to grow, learn, pray, and observe alongside you.

Rabbi Rachel Akerman is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, MD and has been serving that community since she was ordained in 2011. This will be Rachel’s 8th summer at camp and she has served as faculty for K’far Noar, Chavurah, Gesher, and Carmel. She’s excited to follow last year’s Carmel campers up to Sharon this year!

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