When Tisha B’Av arrives on the evening of Aug. 8, it may be the first time the day of mourning will have been observed anywhere near McRoberts, Ky., an isolated Appalachian hamlet with fewer than 1,000 residents.
Members of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn are heading to the town on Aug. 7 on a five-day volunteer mission, part of a program coordinated by the Good People Fund.
It is the second time B’nai Israel has traveled to McRoberts as a group, and the third for Rabbi Steven Bayar, who is attempting to establish a long-term relationship between the congregation and the community.
Bayar hopes he and his congregants can make a difference in the area, where the average per capita income was estimated in 2009 at $10,934. His goal is to establish a presence there several times a year, with the help of partnering synagogues.
As they did on their previous trip, the B’nai Israel members will deliver a truckload of food and shoes and will spend time doing repairs on five area homes. The Good People Fund, a Millburn-based tzedaka collective, is providing funds for materials and to pay local workers who will assist the volunteers.
Several volunteers will run a two-day after-school camp for students at the McRoberts Elementary School, which begins its new school year next week; an alcohol and drug counselor will also work with the local community through the efforts of the Good People Fund.
“We are becoming more specific in our work there and developing relationships with individuals,” said Bayar. “As we learn what they need, we can plan more effectively.”
There is no Jewish community in the area; the nearest Jewish communities are located in Bluefield, W.Va. (125 miles away), where there is one Reform synagogue; Charleston, W.Va. (145 miles away), and Lexington, Ky. (160 miles away).
This time, B’nai Israel recruited a group from Congregation Shaarey Shamayim in Lancaster, Pa., to join them. That contingent is led by Rabbi Jack Paskoff, an old acquaintance of Bayar’s. In planning the trip, Bayar realized it would overlap with Tisha B’Av.
“We are limited in the weeks we can go. The area is not open to us from December through April because of storms and inaccessibility,” he said in an e-mail sent a few days before the trip. “Because this was the best time for Jack’s congregation to go, we decided we would schedule it now.”
Bayar said he imagines that spending Tisha B’Av in Appalachia will add significance to the day, in which Jews mourn the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem and other calamities in Jewish history by fasting. “In the midst of remembering our greatest tragedies, we are engaging in tikun olam; we are demonstrating that we will not be denied our ultimate goal as Jews,” he wrote.
Services will be held on Tuesday evening in Whitesburg, Ky., where the group is staying and which is 15 miles from McRoberts. Bayar isn’t sure whether the people in McRoberts know anything about any Jewish holidays. “We will invite them to be with us and talk to them about it,” he said.
Also joining them will be volunteers from California and Ohio, organized through the Good People Fund; Naomi Eisenberger, a member of B’nai Israel, is the founder and director of the fund, which was established in 2008. She said 38 volunteers will be taking part this time around.
In the spring of 2012, Bayar said, he hopes to bring along a contingent of doctors and nurses to provide medical care for the community.