Groups put some joy and oy into Tisha B’Av observance

On Tisha B’Av, a holiday often called the “saddest day on the Jewish calendar,” Rabbi Moshe Levin wants everyone to put away the tissues.

Instead, the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco wants people to be contemplative, celebratory and anything but sad.

“We can’t continue to observe a ritual of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem when Jerusalem is in our hands,” Levin said. “And we can’t do the same things we have done before, or else Judaism doesn’t grow.”

To that end, six Jewish groups in San Francisco and Marin have organized a communitywide gathering on Monday, July 19 to mark Tisha B’Av — the annual day of fast named for the ninth day (Tisha) of the month of Av in the Hebrew calendar — in a different way.

The fast, which begins Monday, July 19, commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, which occurred roughly 650 years apart but on the same Hebrew calendar date.

Representatives from congregations Ner Tamid and Beth Israel­–Judea, Beit Simchah–Jewish Recovery Community and West Bay Chavurah in San Francisco, Coastside Torah Circle in Half Moon Bay and Beit Yakov Chavurah in Marin are slated to participate, in addition to members from other Bay Area synagogues. Levin expects about 150 people to attend the event, to be held at Ner Tamid, located in the Sunset District.

Flier for communitywide Tisha B’Av event in San Francisco shows Romans carrying a menorah from the Temple in Jerusalem.

Participants will discuss the paradox of maintaining mourning rituals in the face of the reality of the return of Jews to Israel and the reunification of Jerusalem, the site of the destruction some 2,000 years ago.

“In doing what we are doing, we are dealing with a lot more than Tisha B’Av,” Levin said. “We are facing the challenge of keeping Judaism relevant to the times, an issue that must be faced with everything else Jewish. We are tackling the hardest but by far not the only one.”

The evening will begin at 6:30 p.m. with a dairy potluck prior to the fast, and will conclude around 9:30 p.m. Participants are encouraged to bring foods full of flavor, to minimize the sadness often evoked by the holiday’s traditional foods of bread and hardboiled eggs.

As the sun sets, representatives from the six

organizations will chant from the biblical Book of Lamentations, traditionally recited on the fast day of Tisha B’Av, and conclude with melodies appropriate for the occasion.

Saralie Pennington, who co-leads the monthly Renewal Shabbat services with West Bay Chavurah along with her husband, Tom Herz, will bring their instruments. Pennington said she expects the music to be “reflective” and “a little more somber” than the melodies they play during Kabbalat Shabbat.

Pennington said at least 12 people from her chavurah are planning to attend the event, one she deemed “valuable and worthwhile” and “a time to contemplate.”

“I think Rabbi Levin wants to introduce the idea that we do have Israel — we are not longing to return, we have returned, and that needs to be acknowledged,” Pennington said. “There is certainly a reason to be somber because of the destruction, but we need to celebrate the amazing resiliency of the Jewish people that keeps on happening.”

Added Pennington: “That’s the joy as well as the oy.”

In planning the event, Ner Tamid program director Achi Ben Shalom contacted groups that he thought would be open to “confront that reality and seek to balance tradition with change.”

“That’s the watchword of Conservative Judaism,” Ben Shalom said. “In fact it’s what all liberal groups believe in,  whether they are Reform, Conservative, Reconstruction-ist or Renewal. We have to live the balance between the past and present, between traditions like reading Lamentations and celebrating our presence in our ancient and now modern capital, the spiritual center of the Jewish people.”

Several experiences in Jerusalem on Tisha B’Av inspired Levin to create the Tisha B’Av program. In the late 1970s, he noted the throngs of people gathered near the Western Wall, celebrating and chanting melodies he had never heard. They were a diverse group of Jews, but they were united. Levin was captivated.

“They were all commemorating this sad event, but most everyone was smiling,” Levin recalled. “They all knew that our history had changed.”

Tisha B’Av joint service and potluck begins 6:30 p.m. Monday, July 19 at Congregation Ner Tamid, 1250 Quintara St., S.F. Information: (415) 661-3383.

Congregations Sinai in San Jose and Beth David in Saratoga will co-host a community Tisha B’Av observance 8 p.m. Monday, July 19 at Beth David, 19700 Prospect Road. Information:

Check your local synagogue for other Tisha B’Av commemorations.