Rabbi Jordan Hersh

Rabbi Jordan Hersh of Beth Sholom Congregation in Frederick.

Editor’s note: This story ran on fredericknewspost.com earlier this week shortly after Tisha B’av.

Last Sunday marked Tisha B’av, one of the most solemn in the Jewish calendar, as it is a day to mourn the destruction of the Jewish temples that happened in 586 B.C. and A.D. 70, respectively. Rabbi Jordan Hersh, of Beth Sholom Congregation in Frederick, talked to a News-Post reporter about what the holiday means to Jews and to the area.

In your own words, what is Tisha B’av?

On the surface it is the day we commemorate the day that both the first and the second temple were destroyed — the first one in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians, and then, again, the second temple in [A.D.] 70 by the Romans. So, in a sense ... it commemorates the destruction of the temples, and even more broadly, the beginning of the loss of Jewish sovereignty in our own land. ... It kind of marks the beginning of the Jewish diaspora.

But it’s also so much more than just those three days. It’s the day that we commemorate not just the destruction of the temple, the experience of homelessness of the people, very much the experience of the refugees of the world without a place to call home.

So if you look all the way back in time, to the Book of Numbers, the Jewish people had left Egypt, they’re wandering, not quite 40 years, and they’re going a little while through the desert and then they get to the Jordan River, and they send 12 spies into the land to check it out before they go in. Go back to the moment that begins the 40 years of wandering, it was that day they decided they were too afraid to go into the land [Israel] was the ninth of Av — Tisha B’av. The day that God decreed, “You cried for no reason. I pulled you out of Egypt and you didn’t think I could take you into the land of Israel? Now I’ll give you a reason to cry.” That marked the first bad experience on the ninth of Av, according to this tradition.

And then there’s the destruction of the temples ... then in 1492, not that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” but that the Jews were kicked out of Spain, so it marks the Inquisition, the Jewish expulsion from Spain. There were several major pogroms that happened in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Russia. On this day [in 1914], [Archduke Franz] Ferdinand was killed and that started World War I, which is often tied to the Holocaust. Because, had WWI not happened, the conditions Germany were in and the Treaty of Versailles would not have manifested to create the conditions to support someone like Hitler and the Nazi regime, and therefore the Holocaust. And, then, it’s connected to the Crusades.

This is the one day, really, that we set aside, really, it’s a day for mourning where we think about all the tragedies that followed our people, traditionally, through our days in the wilderness of the desert.

So, why is it important to reflect upon these major tragedies?

For several reasons. I think, one, because it’s our history. Whether or not you say that [the] biblical account is historical or not, certainly most of the other accounts are. If so, we have a lot to celebrate in our tradition, and there’s a lot of Jewish history to remember. It almost became a cliché from the Holocaust, “Never Forget,” you know, “Never Again.” It’s something that’s really been with us for all time.

And we say, if we forget not so much the event, but if we forget our people who suffered and their suffering and ... so, by remembering, we actually empower their memory, and it’s a way of also saying that, yes, this is what happened to us, but it isn’t how we define ourselves, but all nations. You know, Judaism isn’t just a religion. First and foremost, it’s a people. ... The nation of Israel, the people of Israel, which have religious expression, but it was always a people more than it was a religion. Every nation has its days of remembrance. Even in the U.S., we have Memorial Day. You know, every country has that, and as a nation, this is our Memorial Day.

How do you think this holiday relates to or impacts the Jewish community of Frederick?

I think it might perhaps be the day when, you know, we’re very blessed in America. This is a golden age. The 13th century, 14th century under Muslim rule was the only other time in history where the Jews weren’t in exile. Other than [A.D.] 70, it’s the only other time in history where Jews have this level of social, political, economic integration into society. And so, sometimes we forget that we are a people that happens to be living in this country now. Two generations back, most of our grandparents or maybe great-grandparents were probably not born in this country. Some of us go back quite a few generations, but that’s the minority of American Jews.

And I think it’s safe to say that people often reflect on the realization that, even though we are Americans, we’re fully Americans. There’s an American flag in our sanctuary [of Beth Sholom], I served in the military — I was a chaplain in the National Guard — and are fully, fully American, and yet, there’s always a realization that I think the day brings out: that our situation here isn’t a given.

Can you explain a little bit more on that?

We just look around at our society now, of the riots, of these public displays of xenophobia. I mean, even just thinking of the shootings [in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio], thinking about the chance of that happening is irritating. You know, any “anti-anything” is very much something that we are used to as Jews. Throughout our history — and I think we got comfortable here — and I think Tisha B’av reminds us that the luxury and the comfort in the country that we do, because things could change.

Only a few decades ago ... Jews were treated different socially. So I think that this is a day where we remember that where we are, and the specific time and place, is unique and it’s not a given that, in another 40 or 50 years, we’ll feel the same way. We have every Jewish community in the country debating about whether we should, what kind of security are we supposed to have on our synagogues. The Jewish communities, of course, aren’t alone. But it’s a reminder that, in some way, this society views us a little bit on the outside.

Beyond Frederick’s Jewish community, what do you think the greater Frederick community could take away from this holiday?

If you think about the idea that this holiday really represents the moment of becoming refugees in the world, of being kicked out of a place that was their own, with nowhere to go and living, for most of Jewish history, really, have the goodwill of whatever host nation we lived in — the realization that this country has done that in one of the greatest ways in history. And it’s part of a core of what this country is.

From my grandfather, for example, who grew up in Poland, where Easter was the scariest day of the year because Christians would go out looking for Jews to beat up. He always said when he came here — he ended up serving in the Army — that it was his greatest privilege to give back to a country that gave him a chance at success at life. And this country has done that better than any other and, especially today, in our society now ... we have a lot of pieces about what it means to accept refugees as human beings and to understand that all people, no matter where they’re coming from, have a history and that we need to be understanding, try to get to know who people are, what their experiences are and try to imagine what it’s like in their shoes. And I think that’s a pretty good lesson from Tisha B’av.

Follow Rebecca Duke Wiesenberg on Twitter: @busybusybeckybe.

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