On Saturday night Marci Malat will sit in silence and darkness pierced only by candlelight, listening to the chanting of Eicha, or Lamentations, in her synagogue to commemorate Tisha B'Av. But more than reflecting upon the long-ago destruction of the temples in Jerusalem, she will be thinking about the personal devastation she caused herself and to her family.
"I was always getting loaded. And never showing up to any family event that mattered," said Malat, 43.
For Malat and the other 70 or so residents of Beit T'Shuvah, a recovery community in Los Angeles, as well as graduates and nonaddicts seeking meaning and introspection, Tisha B'Av is an opportunity to revisit their past and to recommit to change.
Tisha B'Av occurs on the ninth day of the month of Av, hence its name, and begins this year at sundown on Aug. 13. Jews mourn the loss of the temples in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E., as well as other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, including the end of the Bar-Kochba Revolt (135 C.E.), the expulsion from Spain (1492) and the deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto (1942).
Over the years, some communities, including many Reform congregations, have moved away from Tisha B'Av observances, because they believe the Temple is no longer central to Jewish religious life. They don't want to imply a desire to return to Temple practices, such as animal sacrifice or a priestly caste system. And, while they mourn the tragedies, they applaud the metamorphosis of Judaism into a worldwide congregational religion.
"To commemorate the destruction of the Temple when we have no desire to go back and rebuild it doesn't make sense," said Rabbi Jeff Marx of Sha'arei Am, a Reform synagogue in Santa Monica.
Other groups, however, such as Beit T'Shuvah, have found ways to infuse the holiday with new meaning.
"We take the metaphor of destruction and look at ourselves," Beit T'Shuvah's Rabbi Mark Borovitz said. "For some people, this is a very, very profound and amazing transforming experience."
While some focus on individual introspection, others look at external suffering, such as genocide, poverty and environmental devastation.
"The destruction of the Temple may be the most significant symbol in Jewish communal life," said Lori Lefkovitz, professor of gender and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and director of Kolot: Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies, both in Wyncote, Penn. She believes that Jews have a spiritual obligation to recapture its meaning.
For Rabbi Sharon Brous, leader of Ikar, a year-old spiritual community in Los Angeles, that means hosting a traditional commemoration service to make people aware of the original tragedies, while also connecting the holiday to present societal and political issues.
On the evening of Aug. 14, Ikar, in partnership with The Shtibl, an egalitarian minyan, will present a Jewish response to genocide and other atrocities. Participants meeting at the Westside Jewish Community Center will view the film, "Rwanda: Do Scars Ever Fade?" as well as a "60 Minutes" segment on Darfur.
A panel discussion will follow, with speakers, in addition to Brous, including Happy Mutesi, a Rwandan genocide survivor, and Gabriel Stauring, co-founder of StopGenocideNow.org. Daniel Sokatch, executive director of Progressive Jewish Alliance, will moderate.
Brous anticipates a "serious, honest, soulful conversation about dealing with the knowledge that so much of the suffering we read about in Lamentations is a reality today for millions of people." For her, it's critical that people emerge from the darkness of Tisha B'Av with a real sense of purpose and with a mandate to act in the world.
Elsewhere, the Calabasas Shul, which will hold its traditional Tisha B'Av service on Saturday evening, also plans special programming for the following day. At noon, at Mount Sinai in Simi Valley, the shul will show "Mourning for What Was, Hurting for What Is, Believing in What Will Be," a video featuring a panel of rabbis examining the current situation in Israel.
That evening another video, "Finding Your Voice: How to Speak the Language of the Redemption," with HaRav Mattishayu Salomon and Rabbi Yissachar Frand, will be shown at the home of Calabasas Shul's Rabbi Yakov Vann. This guide, to be shown in synagogues worldwide, aims to help people leave behind angry, hurtful words and instead, express positive sentiments that foster harmony.
"We are trying to create an understanding of this tragedy that happened over 2,000 years ago and make it relevant to our lives today," Vann said.
However people connect to Tisha B'Av, "there's tremendous cathartic power in a communal mourning ritual," said Kolot's Lefkovitz, who also founded ritualwell.org, a Web site through which she collects and makes available descriptions of a variety of innovative and contemporary Jewish ceremonies.
"It is our job to take all these classical observances and find the ways in which we can use them to bring sanctity and perspective to our own lives," she said.
For more information on these Tisha B'Av observances, contact:
Beit T'Shuvah, (310) 204-5200 or go to www.beittshuvahla.org.
Ikar, (323) 634-1870; www.ikar-la.org.
Calabasas Shul, (818) 591-7485; www.calabasasshul.org.
For more Tisha B'Av services, please turn to the calendar section on page 32 or visit www.jewishjournal.com.