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Homelessness/ Loneliness: What does Tisha B’av have to do with it?

On Tuesday August 9th, the Jewish people observed Tisha B'av. In all honesty I’ve never been to a Tisha B’av service, and only have a brief understanding of what the holiday is all about. But I do know it is about mourning for the literal and metaphorical destruction that has been caused and looking forward to “olam ha’ba” the world to come.

So I’m gonna try to unpack this holiday a bit for myself and hopefully for you. Here goes….

In our lives: Each year my close friend sends a very personal message in the spirit of Tisha B’av on her own challenges that are acting destructively in her own life and reflects on how to turn these challenges into a positive light. Each year I’m able to learn about her current struggles and am pushed to see the world through her eyes and reflective process where she finds the good out of the bad and continues to strive towards building this positive energy.

As with Yom Kippur it is tradition to fast on Tisha B’av since you are consumed in a full day of prayer and mourning. Fasting reminds us of physical pain which to me represents the pain that our people have felt each time there was further tragedy on this historic day of tribulations.

Reflecting: For me, the destruction of the first and second temples and the expulsion of Jews from Spain and England all of which occurred on the 9th of the Jewish month of Av symbolize a greater feeling of homelessness. Here is a full list of the losses on Tisha B’av (the 9th of Av). Homelessness doesn’t necessarily have to mean without a physical home for prayer as it may have meant for the Jews in 586 and 516 B.C.E. it can mean many things. It can mean feeling alone, or left out from your family, or community. When we feel like we don’t fit in we may feel physically and spiritually homeless, or uncomfortable. Loss in our lives can create this feeling as well whether actually losing a home, a job, a parent, family member, or a friend we mourn that which we no longer have. Our home which once was is no longer and our morning consumes us.

Where to go from here: I think a good amount of reflection on our lives and the ways we interact with others allows us to grow spiritually. If we continue to live our lives without a healthy self-check and evaluation of where we are and where we are going we can wind up being very distant from even ourselves. Tisha B’av is about morning communal loss. But you can choose to bring that closer to home by evaluating the ways in which you have been destructive to your home, your family, your friends, your professional relationships. Are you working on building the new “metaphorical” temple or are you tearing down the walls around you? Where do you turn towards home? Do you feel homeless or at a loss for what once was? On Tisha B’av the Jewish community mourns with those who feel alone and defeated. But the next day we pick up and begin to hope again for the beit hamikadash (house of the holy).

“I think it's important to recognize that we can't just hope. We can't just have faith that mashiach will come. We have to be proactive. We must examine who we are, what we're doing, and what we need to do to be worthy and meritorious of the next step in our cycle.” Cindy Kaplan Tisha B’av thoughts 2010.

So whether you feel lonely or without a home, or whether you are grateful to have a life where you feel uniformly whole we each could gain something from reflecting on destruction and rebuilding within our lives. Don’t just mourn take steps towards repair, and then we truly will live in a holy world.

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The Modern Haggadah Part 2: New Voices and the Reactionary

This year I tried something new at my family’s Seder. We used a new Haggadah! After researching various Haggadot, I picked: The Wandering is Over Haggadah: Including Women’s Voices, created by www.Jewishboston.com, and the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, MA. These two organizations represent my liberal Jewish values, and the voices of various Jews, including Jewish women. I thought talking about women’s rights’ as part of our annual reflection on liberation would be a good first choice for my family due to the many strong women and emphasis on education our family has.

While I did not expect it to be a smooth transition, I was shocked by the backlash I received. The argument against a newly introduced Haggadah was that I had re-written Jewish history, and that Judaism is about tradition, the story of the past, and not the current political struggles we face. It caused me to question how we successfully enact change. If things are to remain stagnant in our history and we are simply to retell the past what purpose does that serve? What are we learning, discussing, and how are we using our history to create change? I recognize that change is slow, but to me learning about our Jewish past ensures that we as Jews have empathy for others current need for liberation.

One of the most common phrases repeated in torah is “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We learn as Jews not to oppress the stranger. That phrase from the Torah is Jewish tradition, and a value that we are told to pass on, it is a piece of our history. Do we recognize the strangers in our current society? Are we able to understand their need for liberation and how we as Jews can ensure that they are not oppressed since we faced a similar fate in Egypt?

I learned that storytelling is only a powerful tool if we are highlighting all our voices. This new Haggadah never once changed the rituals, and history of the story that my family was used to, instead it added the narrative of women in both biblical times and liberation that is more recent. Aren’t the stories of the women who were present also needed to get the full picture of our Jewish history? Just because past Haggadot may have been written in a different time, where men dictated the story, does not mean we still live in that world today. As we make ripples towards change, we need to make sure our goals for equity are synonymous with our actions.

We have the ability to highlight voices that were a part of the Passover story such as Shifra, Puah, and Miriam who saved Jewish babies from being killed in the Nile. Their actions helped lead the Jews towards liberation! I refuse to stand by hearing the history of my ancestors and learn nothing from it except a heart-warming story of our freedom. The story in the Haggadah teaches me to fight for others’ liberation and justice. It teaches me to discuss reforming policies in our country and to help the stranger around the world. I struggle with how to create change with the reactionary’s aversion to new ideas.

If you did one thing this year at your Seder, I hope it was prompting discussion on current needs for liberation. Change happens slowly but when we tell our story of liberation we do so to challenge ourselves and others, to remember our own liberation, and why it is important to feel as if we were personally slaves in Egypt. By remembering our enslavement, we “recall” what history has taught us, and what it feels like to be the other. When we tell the story of liberation, we strengthen our need to not stand idly by in others’ struggles towards freedom.

Further reading:
Nytimes article: Put yourself in the story of Passover
Nytimes article: An Oyster on the Seder plate
JWA: Jewish Women's voices in the seder

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The Modern Haggadah: re-telling the Passover story


By: Elyssa Cohen, Tacklingtorah and originally posted at Pursue: Action for a just world. (I'm starting to write with Pursue, so be sure to share and comment on my posts!)

This year, how do we incorporate current abuses of civilian rights with our Jewish ancestors’ fight for freedom?

With Passover quickly approaching it’s a good time to stop and reflect on the power of storytelling. Our stories have the ability to create change. What is the story that your family tells on Passover? Has the same Haggadah been used annually since you were in utero?

Now’s the time to change! Many Jewish organizations are taking time to consider re-telling the story of Passover as a social change agent for current struggles of freedom. Evaluating the story of Passover gives us the opportunity to reflect, and share a story of an oppressed people in the vein of both remembering and not allowing history to repeat itself. What is the narrative of those who are currently oppressed?

Who has the ability to share their story, and who’s listening?

As young Jews acting for social change are we at liberty to speak of a narrative that may not be our own?

Isn’t Passover the best opportunity we have to share with a large number of people the causes we care about? I hope this year you are able to step up and create awareness within your family about those who are fighting for their freedom today. Create your own modern Haggadah, and tell the new story of freedom. We know that personal stories have the ability to garner a certain amount of empathy for people to connect with strangers, but I don’t anticipate everyone going out and writing their own Haggadah about Libyan families. The good news is you don’t have to write your own Haggadah from scratch, but you can make it personal to account for the social justice work that you do! Choose this year to talk about the fight within the LGBT community for marriage rights and transgender equality, healthcare equality, civil rights in Egypt, Libya, freedom from world hunger, the Japanese struggle as they repair from natural disaster devastation, to name a few.

While the original freedom story remains stagnant, our world around us changes and we as the next generation of Jewish leaders have to bring those around us towards liberation.

The new way to celebrate Passover is by creating your own Haggadot, so go ahead get rid of the Maxwell house Passover Haggadahs and treat yourself to freedom for the future!

It’s a Do-It-Yourself narrative this year. Over the next week, Pursue will share reflections on current issues of liberation, and ideas for additions to your Passover seder.

In the meantime, here are some resources for your own modern Haggadot. I challenge you to inspire your family with new traditions:

Compiling your own meaningful texts

Incorporating multi-media into your Seder

The Wandering is Over Haggadah, from ‘Jewish Boston’

Elyssa Cohen has been involved in social justice work since high school, when she founded a chapter of the ADL’s education program “A World Of Difference” at her public school. Elyssa has always valued a strong sense of community, and has been involved in a variety of different organizations whose mission reflects this goal. Elyssa was a Jewish Organizing Initiative fellow in Boston and worked as the Community Organizer of Keshet, an organization working for the full inclusion of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender individuals within the Jewish Community. Elyssa is happy to have moved back to NY and to have joined the staff at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in the West Village. Elyssa is in the constant pursuit of justice! Check out more of Elyssa’s Jewish social justice writing at www.tacklingtorah.blogspot.com.

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