Skepticism and hope mingle at S.F. Tisha BAv event

A small crowd of Jews from across the Bay Area met at San Francisco's Holocaust Memorial Aug. 7 to commemorate Tisha B'Av, a day of mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and for the many other tragedies that have punctuated Jewish history.

With a spattering of small clouds resting above the hills of the Marin Headlands, about 35 people — some young, some old — gathered at the Lincoln Park memorial to reflect on the day and listen as various rabbis spoke about Jewish persistence over past persecutions and current challenges.

Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, led the event, which was co-sponsored by his group and the Jewish Community Relations Council. In his opening remarks, Teitelbaum noted that Tisha B'Av is a day of deep mourning when Jews across the world express a communal spiritual moan.

"The theme of today is echah," Teitelbaum said, explaining that echah is a Hebrew vocalization of the grief that Jews experience on Tisha B'Av. Teitelbaum reminded those present that mourners make this sound of lamentation for past atrocities against Jews and for persecutions of all peoples worldwide.

The rabbi pointed out that in recent years evils have been committed against people living in Burundi, Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan and, more recently, in Liberia. While Teitelbaum expressed repeated cries of echah for the deaths of innocent civilians during war and the scourge of terrorism, he also expressed grief at growing rates of anti-Semitism and at the slander that he said currently demonizes Israel and Jews worldwide.

Following Teitelbaum's remarks, Israeli Deputy Consul General Omer Caspi told the crowd that immediately before the destruction of both Temples, Jews lived in a fractured society and lacked strong leadership. If today's Jews are to continue to be fruitful and avoid future tragedies, Caspi said, strong leaders must step forward, and Jews must settle their internal disputes.

Caspi finished by reminding the crowd that despite current challenges, Jews continue to have a bright future ahead, and that it is Israel that remains, "our future and our hope and our vision."

Rabbi Sheldon Lewis of Palo Alto's Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth, president-elect of the Board of Rabbis, used the day of mourning to pay tribute to Jews' ability to persist in the face of past atrocities. To highlight this persistence Lewis read a story from Yaffa Eliach's "Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust."

The tale dealt with a boy who went into a Gestapo office to demand that his younger sister be released from captivity and be saved from certain death. An officer, shocked by the boy's effrontery, said he would kill both the boy and his sister unless the boy could then and there grow hair on the palms of his hands. Amazingly, the boy revealed hands covered in hair — the results of a skin graft made some time earlier.

Though the skin graft provided a rational explanation for the seemingly miraculous salvation of the boy and his sister, Lewis said it is stories such as these that speak of God's blessing toward Jews and Jews' determination to continue as a people. Throughout history Jews have been saved by a strong will to survive and a touch of miraculous intervention, Lewis said. This continuity has occurred despite the fact that "so many times it would have been possible to become but a memory," Lewis said.

Rabbi Jacob Traub of San Francisco's Orthodox Adath Israel praised the eternal optimism but added a strong dose of skepticism to the day's discussion. "We look at terrible situations and say, 'That was then, and things are gonna be different now,'" he said. "Along with optimism there needs to be a sense of cold, hard reality."

While praising the Jewish people's indomitable spirit, Traub urged modern Jews to remember history's lessons and to look realistically at the current move toward peace between Israel and Palestinians. The rabbi warned that the destructions of the two Temples were preceded by failed last-minute deals meant to save ancient Israel and the lives of its inhabitants. He said that with the current round of peace negotiations, Jews are again slowly giving away security in Israel in the name of peace.

While the crowd heard a variety of opinions about past tragedies and what they mean to modern Jews, the event ended on a high note with the singing of "Hatikvah" ("The Hope").