With shofars and fasting, Boston Jews use Tisha B’av to commemorate Black grief
At a park close to Boston University, members of Jewish communal groups gathered Thursday evening to hold a Tisha B’Av vigil for the Black Lives Matter movement.
More than 150 participants attended the 90-minute event, in masks and maintaining social distance. The vigil was organized by Kavod, a community of young Jews committed to spiritual practice and justice.
The Ninth of Av, or Tisha B’Av, is among the most solemn days on the Jewish calendar, set aside to mourn tragedies throughout Jewish history, from the biblical sin of the spies to the destruction of both Temples to more modern catastrophes. Talmudic tradition holds that the Second Temple was destroyed by baseless hatred among Jews and many use the day to try and heal societal rifts, such as those that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement and the wave of racial justice protests sweeping the United States.
Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum of Temple Beth Zion opened the gathering by acknowledging that participants were standing or sitting on “beautiful land stolen from the Wampanoag people.”
Berenbaum, a Brookline native, invited participants to “cry out in collective grief, mourning and outrage against the violence of anti-black racism in our world and in our communities.”
In the context of the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, said the rabbi, “shofar blasts [will] awaken us from our grief and [be] a voice to call us back into action.”
The vigil included remarks by Black Jewish leaders and readings from the Book of Lamentations, the text read on Tisha B’Av. Several poems and musical selections about grief and destruction were performed.
The vigil took place next to Hall’s Pond Sanctuary, one of two natural ponds remaining in Brookline. The Boston suburb of 60,000 is home to several synagogues and top hospitals.
“This is a day for honoring our hurting hearts,” said Rabbi Leora Abelson of Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue in Boston.
“There is strength in honoring our grief,” said Abelson, adding that anti-racism demonstrations have “given public voice to the grief of Black people in the country and around the world.”
According to Abelson, Black Americans have been showing us “how important it is to honor our grief.”
For some Jews, the current moment involves looking within themselves to examine long-held beliefs, said Abelson.
“As a Jew, I add that naming white supremacy means naming the particular forms of racism that show up in our Jewish communities,” said Abelson.
The vigil also included remarks from Mariama White-Hammond, the founding pastor of New Roots African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dorchester.
A pastor of color who had never commemorated Tisha B’Av, White-Hammond nevertheless drew on themes from Jewish history for her sermon. The US, she said, is in a “wilderness moment,” similar to the ancient Israelites being punished for listening to the twelve spies.
White-Hammond told attendees that biblical spies incident was the first disaster commemorated on Tisha B’Av. It took place because the Children of Israel did not believe the Lord would keep promises made to Moses. To cleanse themselves of old thinking, the Israelites wandered for 40 years until the generation of the spies died out.
“I do think we are in a wilderness moment,” said White-Hammond. “I don’t think it’s any accident that this uprising occurred at the same time as this pandemic. This is a radical opportunity to let old ways of being die,” said the pastor.
I don’t think it’s any accident that this uprising occurred at the same time as this pandemic
“It’s about the power to let Pharaoh go,” said White-Hammond.
Kavod activist and urban planner Courtney Sharpe shared her disappointment about “Jewish voices who do not or ‘cannot’ support that Black lives matter because an organization of the same name happened to have critiqued Israel and later amended its stance,” said Sharpe.
“I have a hard time accepting that folks are really so obtuse as to think these marches are about an organization rather than the unequivocal fact of the three words that: Black lives matter,” said the activist.
“As someone squarely in the Jewish and Black worlds, I am troubled by the false dichotomy currently in the public discourse,” said Sharpe. “If as a community we want to support the lives of Jews of color, we can’t only do it to save face for white Jews. It needs to be an embedded and genuine practice that uplifts the entire community, not patronizing, and not fake.”