Nearly 40 people squeezed into the small seminar room to hear Ilene Strauss teach about the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, interwoven with the prophecies of Amos and Hosea.
She spoke for more than her allotted hour, and still, her audience at Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David in West Orange listened in rapt attention as Strauss described the deterioration of Judaism in the northern kingdom that led to their exile.
“When we talk about the tribes disappearing,” said Strauss, “there was a good reason that happened. There was not much culturally left. There was nothing to hold onto when the northern kingdom went into exile.”
Ominous tales of Jewish transgression and exile aren’t your usual summer fare. But in the weeks preceding the fast day of Tisha B’Av, a day for mourning the destruction of the Temple and other Jewish calamities, Strauss said her audience is hungry for ways to think about one of the grimmest days on the Jewish calendar.
“People lack knowledge in this area. Not everyone went to day school and learned about it,” said Strauss.
“Even those who did study, there’s text but no context,” added fellow congregant Shaindy Zudick, who with Strauss is teaching three classes at the Orthodox synagogue in preparation for Tisha B’Av, which falls this year on July 20.
Their classes coincide with the Three Weeks, the traditional period during which joyful activities are increasingly restricted in preparation for the fast day. The day includes the reading of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah.
The rituals surrounding Tisha B’Av are a perennial challenge for Jewish educators, especially since it falls in high summer, when people’s minds are turned elsewhere. Yet congregants at AABJ&D had voiced a need for this kind of class after last year’s observance — “something that would put Eicha and Jeremiah into context,” said Strauss, who also serves on the synagogue’s adult education committee.
Strauss is a teacher at SAR Academy, a day school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Zudick, an associate principal of The Frisch School in Paramus, will be stepping down from her position; she plans to make aliya in the fall.
“Tisha B’Av is one of the most meaningful and difficult days we as a people have, but there’s no setup. We’re not light switches. If we’re going to cry, it has to come from a place deep in our hearts,” said Strauss.
Zudick contrasted the experience in the synagogue community with what happens in an Orthodox summer camp, where Tisha B’Av is threaded into camp activities.
“There’s a buildup from the three weeks to the nine days to Tisha B’Av that transcends time,” she said. “By Tisha B’Av, [they] are crying. For adults who are not at camp, it’s very foreign. We’re not living it. We’re so used to the galut [exile].
“How can we drive home the point that now everything is unraveled? How can we point out what’s missing? That’s what we’re trying to do in these sessions.”
The next sessions in the series are being held on Wednesdays, July 7 and 14, at 8:30 p.m. at AABJ&D. They are free and open to the public.