On a day when Jews memorialized the loss of two holy temples, the killing of Jews during the Second Century Bar Kokhba revolt and destruction of Betar, the dismal reporting of 12 biblical spies, the commencement of the first crusade, the Medieval and Renaissance expulsions of Jews from England, France and Spain, the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, the AMIA bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires and scores of other Jewish atrocities, roughly 100 people gathered at Pittsburgh’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office, on the South Side, to call attention to the mistreatment of migrants and refugees.
“We are here because of the inhumane treatment of immigrants, migrants and refugees who are crossing our border. We are here because of the cruel separation of families, harming not just their mental health today but harming them for decades. We are here because of the overcrowding and mistreatment of people locked in detention centers who are otherwise innocent people who need compassion. And we are here because Jewish tradition demands of us to see, to feel and to honor the pain of our own history and that of those around us,” said Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, of Squirrel Hill, to the dozens seated before him on sidewalks or nearby grass.
“One of the ways we ritualize this mourning, this grief, is by sitting, as if in sackcloth,” Markiz continued. “There may be other passions and frustrations that fill our hearts today, other terrible things in the world today that we need to pay attention to, but I’m going to ask you today to be focused on what we are here for, to bring our full intentions and attention to this.”
Interspersing Markiz’s comments were shared reflections, selected readings, songs and a shofar blast.
“We find ourselves in the midst of the worst refugee crisis in recorded history with more than 70 million people displaced worldwide. Given these extraordinary numbers, the continued attacks on asylum and the refugee resettlement program in the United States are even more inhumane. Of course we know that the proverbial 10th of Av will come,” said Aviva Lubowsky, of Squirrel Hill, one of several speakers. Before then, however, “we fervently lament the many cruel actions this administration has taken.”
Given the fallout of the Hebrew calendar, the 9th of Av occurred this year on a Saturday. During such instances, fasting and other practices are pushed off until the following day, Sunday, the 10th of Av. Among the deferred observances is the reading of Eicha, the biblical book of Lamentations. As noted in “Masekhet Soferim,” a non-canonical Talmudic work, Eicha is publically read on Tisha B’Av. Though Eicha is five chapters long, Jonathan Weinkle, of Squirrel Hill, marked the Aug. 11 gathering by chanting an appended sixth chapter made available by HIAS. According to the organization’s printed materials, the additional text is “meant to express our mourning over the contemporary refugee and asylum crises.”
In the midst of the solemn event, Molly May, of Pittsburgh, blew the shofar.
The sounding of the ram’s horn was a “call for action to be awoken,” said Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman, of Squirrel Hill, who along with Markiz organized the program. The loud rhythmic blasts were intended to arouse listeners from slumber, much in the same way the shofar functions throughout the Hebrew month of Elul, Goodman added.
Adding resonance to the event was the singing of songs, including one repeating the Hebrew verse first found in Exodus 15:2, which translates into “The LORD is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation.”
“No hate, no fear refugees, are welcome here” was also chanted.
Like those in Pittsburgh, others nationwide used the day for demonstration. In New York, 40 Jews were arrested while protesting Amazon’s work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, reported the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Of the nearly 50 Jewish gatherings held across the country, no arrests occurred elsewhere, “according to T’ruah, the liberal rabbinic human rights group that was among the protest organizers,” added JTA.
Apart from the demonstrations, Tisha B’Av in Pittsburgh and elsewhere was marked by acts of public mourning. At Congregation Poale Zedeck, in Squirrel Hill, Rabbi Daniel Yolkut live streamed a nearly four-hour exposition of the various kinnot, dirges and elegies, traditionally recited on the day. Prior to exploring the passages, Yolkut welcomed one attendee.
“I want to acknowledge the presence this morning of Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, of New Light Congregation. The navi, prophet, Zecharia writes, ‘Is this not a branch saved from the fire?’ This Tisha B’Av for Jews around the world, and particularly for Jews in Pittsburgh, is also a Tisha B’Av in the shadow of those who were murdered Al Kiddush Hashem at Tree of Life only a few months ago, a mile down the road from here. Rabbi Perlman was together with his congregants on that day and is for us someone saved from the fire of that day.”
Between its history and practices, the day is like a “container” holding different narratives, and “we have an opportunity to derive additional meaning,” said Markiz.
“Tisha B’Av is a holiday where we look back on the misfortunes that have befallen the Jewish people and sometimes it’s hard, we have this powerless feeling that we are the victims,” said Goodman. “It is important to externalize it. There are people who are suffering now and we shouldn’t be silent about it.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.