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The COVID-Era’s Unique Tisha B’Av

Tiferet Mondrow, a recent Ma’ayanot graduate, teaches Kinnot Thursday morning. (credit: Yael Sabo)

Etz Chaim: Led by Rabbi Sam Klibanoff, members in the main sanctuary daven Ma’ariv before Eicha services while customarily sitting on low seats or on the floor. (Credit: Michael Zuckerman)

Tisha B’Av, a time of despondency, marks the loss and mourning of the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem and countless other tragedies in Jewish history. This year’s Tisha B’Av coincided with the losses, uncertainty and worry caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has also affected the way synagogues and community centers operate, and by extension, our religious lives. Synagogues throughout the state have recognized this change in circumstances and adapted their programming to provide meaningful Tisha B’Av services for their communities.

To that end, Chabad of Somerset County considered the impact on how the pandemic has affected the congregation, and how the congregation would make this Tisha B’Av unique. In the past, the Chabad hosted in-person prayer services and film screenings. This year’s Tisha B’Av programming, led by Rabbi Y. Mendy Herson and Rabbi Mendel Shemtov, also included an evening service and Eicha reading in their synagogue on Wednesday night. The film screening and subsequent discussion, however, were moved to a virtual platform. Chabad ensured congregation members complied with social distancing and all other recommended guidelines with ample indoor space and an RSVP system. The Chabad reached out to members by email newsletters to provide more information about location and times.

Rabbi Shemtov noted that the 30-minute film was meant to be a springboard for a meaningful discussion for the 15-20 people they hosted online. The film screening featured “Alone with G-d”, which narrates the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s own journals documenting his escape from Nazi-occupied Berlin, wrestling with the horrors of surrounding world events, finding comfort in his faith and ultimately rebuilding the Jewish community.

Rabbi Shemtov related the special meaning of this year’s Tisha B’Av for the broader Jewish community.

“The message of Tisha B’Av is very translatable (to the pandemic experience),” he said. “Right now, people are feeling that there is a lot of destruction and that everything is falling apart. At the time of the Beit Hamikdash, everything had also collapsed; it wasn’t just about the destruction of the Temple, Jewish sovereignty had also ended and people felt there was no direction. But Tisha B’Av is a glimmer of hope of what could be, to hold on and grab onto that hope and to give us the strength to keep on going.”

Congregation Ohr HaTorah, located in Bergenfield, is one of many shuls that had to face the new reality of COVID-19. The shul, led by Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky since its inception in 2005, utilized its sizable outdoor space to host multiple minyanim on Shabbat and during the week since the quarantine began which allowed the community of more than 200, and associate member families, to maintain a sense of normalcy in these trying times.

Due to the heat on Tisha B’av, a survey was sent out beforehand to gauge how many of the members and associate members would prefer to daven outside versus inside. They could also indicate a preference for one of the various alternative minyanim––for example, there were different options for those that needed to go to work and those who required a shorter Kinnot recitation. On the night of Tisha B’av, members could sign up during different time slots for indoor or outdoor minyanm. They also had the option of hearing Eicha in person or virtually via Zoom. On the morning of Tisha B’av, Rabbi Sobolofsky gave the main minyan an expanded explanation of the Kinnot they were reading. For those who could not attend physically, or those who already davened at one of the outdoor minyanim, the shiur was streamed on Zoom as well. Rabbi Sobolofsky also gave a women’s shiur prior to the fast, as well as two in-person, socially distanced shiurim on Shabbat Chazon, which offered participants both an indoor and an outdoor slot.

“I don’t know if I would categorize it as complacency, but to a degree we have resigned ourselves to the reality that in normal times our Mikdishei M’at have to serve as substitutes for the Beis Hamikdash,” said Judah Eizikovitz, the shul president. “We go through the motions on Tisha B’av but it is often difficult to internalize that sense of loss. I personally found with the haunting sounds of Eicha and Kinnot echoing off the walls of our mostly empty shul, in the shadow of so much tragedy we’ve experienced communally, that sense of loss was much more prominent this year.”

Like many other shuls, Ohr Torah of West Orange has rapidly developed reopening plans that follow the guidelines of the state while also looking out for the safety of the individual community. A few weeks ago, Ohr Torah introduced their minyan plans, which include both indoor and outdoor options on Shabbat, and outdoor times during the week. Moreover, in the West Orange community, there are still numerous backyard minyanim that take place for those more apprehensive of returning to normalcy.

On Tisha B’av, a holiday that usually attracts a high number of attendees, Ohr Torah made the decision to hold the davening in person, and read Eicha and Kinot on Zoom in order to unite the congregation by holding the service all together. Rabbi Spivak gave a speech about encouraging optimism during difficult times, and on a difficult day. The past several months have been extremely difficult, but the Ohr Torah community is stronger than ever, he explained. Because of the ability to lean on each other, they persevere. The Jews have persisted and thrived throughout history’s challenges, and will continue to do so through the connections and closeness the Jewish people share.

The Etz Chaim Synagogue of Livingston, which has been closed for the majority of quarantine, recently opened its doors for Tisha B’Av services on Wednesday and Thursday of last week. While the community encompasses more than 150 families, indoor Tisha B’Av programming was reduced to 50 members. The limited indoor capacity and other host of preventive procedures were instituted in compliance with local health regulations.

Rabbi Sam Klibanoff, who since 2013 has served as an inspiring leader for the rapidly growing Etz Chaim community, has now dedicated his efforts toward every possible measure of safety. Set up in the spacious main sanctuary replete with hand sanitizer stations, participants were required to distance six feet and wear facial covering during services. Because of limited spacing, only those in the kehila who signed up for the in-person minyan were allowed inside the synagogue; the rest of the shul members joined live Zooms for Eicha and Kinnot from the comfort of their homes. In addition to praying services, Rabbi Klibanoff delivered uplifting shiurim revolving around the themes of Tisha B’Av.

Etz Chaim has recently subscribed to a normal schedule of daily Shacharit, Mincha and Ma’ariv services. Friday night kabbalat Shabbat is normally held at 7 p.m., the following Shacharit at 9 a.m. and the following Mincha and Ma’ariv at 7:50 p.m. On weekdays, Shacharit is conducted at 6:45 a.m., with Mincha and Ma’ariv called for 6:30 p.m. Rabbi Klibanoff has been leading women’s shiurim Tuesdays at 10:30 a.m. and Tuesday evening Talmud classes in the shul tent and via Zoom; this programming will resume in late August, when Rabbi Klibanoff returns from vacation.

Congregation of Beth Abraham in Bergenfield runs similar programming each year for Tisha B’Av. Due to the coronavirus pandemic the shul ran similar programming but with safety precautions. Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger, Rabbi Tanchum Cohen and Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Weinberg all spoke before Megillat Eicha in different locations––one location outside, and two locations inside the shul. The speeches were also available via Zoom. During the day, Rabbi Neuberger spoke and had microphone connections to all rooms in the shul building.

In addition to the minyanim held inside the shul, Beth Abraham has multiple community backyard minyanim for Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv all week. Shacharit is held at 6:20 and 7:10 am. Mincha at 7:55 p.m. and Maariv at 9:05 and 10:00 p.m. On Shabbat the shul has four different minyanim for Shacharit in order to best keep to the social distance guidelines They are held at 7:15, 8:40, 8:45 and 9:10 in different locations around the shul.

Also in Bergenfield, two recent Bruriah graduates, Yael Sabo and Racheli Finkelstein could not find an in-person Tisha B’Av program appropriate for their age group so they decided to run a program for girls in middle school that took place in Beth Abraham and in the youth rooms of Ohr HaTorah. At night, they read Kinnot and held a kumzitz led by Sabo, and in the morning they held an hour and half of Kinnot and then showed a movie. Girls from different high schools were also present for Kinnot, and they each took turns reciting.

“Tisha B’av is a hard and heavy day for everyone and especially for this age group,” Finkelstein said. “It is hard to be inspired and focused. If one girl internalized or learned one thing (from the program) then the whole thing was worth it.”

By Hannah Kirsch, Josh Gindi, Olivia Butler, Amira Isenberg and Meira Book

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