Navigate to Community section

How Summer Camps Should—and Shouldn’t—Observe Tisha B’Av

Stop setting things on fire and traumatizing campers. There are better and more meaningful ways to mark the holiday.

Marjorie Ingall
July 22, 2015

Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Thousands of years later and thousands of miles away, Tisha B’Av is also a day for some truly awful programming at Jewish summer camps.

I asked former campers, current camp staff, and Jewish educators from a variety of backgrounds and denominations to talk about some of the bad, kid-traumatizing, pedagogically iffy ways they observed Tisha B’Av at camp—and to share some better approaches.


Former Camper #1: The worst thing was having kids build a model Temple, only to have the counselors burn it. Or to burn letters that kids wrote about their hopes and aspirations. This was a program taken straight out of PTSD for Idiots.

Former Camper #2: I have a memory of one camper in the special needs program almost in tears, just repeating, “My Temple was destroyed.”

Former Camper #3: They showed us very graphic Holocaust pictures.

Former Camper #4:‪ I remember Tisha B’Av at camp as a catch-all for every sad thing that has ever happened to the Jewish people. I can recall trekking around to different locations around camp where various historic episodes were acted out: the Crusades, the Inquisition, pogroms, the Holocaust, etc. A potpourri of Jewish tragedy. And then the Israelis lit stuff on fire.

Former Camper #5: I remember the mock hanging of a camper, which I think was supposed to be a scene from the Holocaust. A female camper a year younger than I was dressed in an orange jumpsuit, and a burlap bag was placed over her head. A noose was put around her neck and she stepped onto a wooden platform. Someone took an ax and cut the platform so that it appeared she was hanging from the noose. We knew that she was not really being hanged and that it was a reenactment of a period from history, but it appeared very real. It was very disturbing.

Former Camper #6: When I was 8, our teacher came in with badly mimeographed pages saying that all the synagogues in the world had just been destroyed. Her aim was for us to think that it was an actual newspaper, and that it would force us to think about Tisha B’Av. In reality, we spent the class asking her what newspaper this was, and why it didn’t look like a real newspaper, and why we hadn’t heard this from our parents. She finally admitted that this wasn’t real, and that she was just trying to get us to feel sorta-kinda like when the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed.

Former Camper #7: I went to camp in the 1960s. There were candles set in sand from the waterfront in aluminum pans on the basketball courts. One year the sand caught fire.

Former Camper #8: I was totally clueless about the holiday and why we were crammed in darkness, sitting, sitting, sitting, forever, having no clue what was going on, my sandal straps making painful indentations on my ankles as we sat criss-cross-applesauce around tiny candles. I’m assuming there was some sort of education about it back then, but as a 9-year-old, even a pretty serious, Jewishly oriented one, it meant nothing to me.

Former Camper #9: It is amazing that so many of us are not in therapy from commemorating Tisha B’Av in camp.

Jewish Educator #1: From my dissertation: Initially over 45 campers indicated that they would not be participating in camp activities because of their observance of Tisha B’Av. Realizing what was going on, the senior staff created a rule that did not allow any camper to spend the day of Tisha B’Av reading Harry Potter. The number of campers observing the fast day dropped instantly from 45 to less than 10.


Former Camper #10: Just the act of sitting on the floor, listening to the mysterious tune of Eicha [the Book of Lamentations in the Hebrew Bible], feeling my fingertips tingle from the sensation of dipping my fingers into the wax of yahrzeit candles on the B-side basketball courts … it was powerful.

Writer’s Daughter #1: It was the most respectful camp environment I’ve ever been in. We were on a trip, in the middle of nowhere. In the wilderness. Everyone was silent and some people were holding hands and we all sat and listened to Jonah Pitkowsky read. He worked really hard to learn the trope. While he was practicing he just kept saying, “This is so beautiful.”

Former Camper #11: One of my most poignant memories of my 1970s childhood was the Magen David burning in the agam [lake] on a float. We read Eicha and sang kinot [elegies] on the shore with flashlights or candles.

Rabbi #1: Tisha B’Av was my thing. At Ramah in Canada I taught as many kids as desired how to chant three lines of Eicha. And one year I created girl-power-positive programming about fasting. We had the girls talk in small, facilitated groups about why they were fasting. No shock: Tisha B’Av and Jerusalem were not on the top of the list; it was a day of trying to look better. We then looked through magazines and asked the girls to share the messages they were getting (you need longer eyelashes, here are the top 10 ways to a skinnier you …). Then we challenged them to find or create positive body images. It became somewhat of a collage, cutting and pasting words and images, adding in a “don’t” in some places, to change the negativity into something positive. We concluded with a discussion about healthy choices—eating, exercising, relating to friends—so that we were “rebuilding” the Temple: the temple of our souls, of our bodies.

Jewish Educator #2: When I was on faculty at URJ Camp Coleman, we helped the post-b’nai-mitzvah kids create a museum of Jewish history, using whatever art supplies we had. Each group picked a theme and created a display that depicted one part of Jewish history that we should remember on Tisha B’Av. We then had the younger kids visit “the museum” while the older kids acted as docents.

Cantor #1: I conducted a large choir of campers and staff at Camp Ramah in the Poconos before and after the reading of Lamentations in the dark. People looked forward to it every year. We called it “The Choir of Death and Destruction.” We sang songs like Eli Eli, Al Tashlicheini, Hashiveinu, and Al Naharot Bavel, wearing white shirts, lit in red. While part of it certainly took on an overdone, tongue-in-cheek, campy quality, most of it was a reflection of an earnest sadness about the historic and more recent tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, including the concurrence of Tisha B’Av with various wars and terrorist activity in Israel in recent years. I would try to get my singers to find that sadness in Jewish history or in their own story and to sing from that place.

Former Camper #12: I liked discussing the idea of redemption as a corrective to anguish.‬ An evening program that stood out for me was when different speakers shared stories of personal brokenness.

Jewish Organizational Leader #1: There were a number of summers at Camp Stone where we cleaned up cemeteries after having learned about the people and community that used to thrive near our camps. There was a buildup throughout the nine days leading up to the moment to set the tone. No music on the ram kol [loudspeaker]. Monotone announcements. Tefillah is normally exceptionally cheerful at camp, but on the 9th of Av it was morose. The contrast hits you hard.

Rabbi #2: I remember during one summer at Camp Ramah in New England, we took the youngest campers, too young to really understand some of the themes of Tisha B’Av, down to the “waterfall” just outside the front gate of camp, on the river, and we talked about what it means to be separated from one’s home. We blindfolded them and walked them around in circles a bit so that they didn’t know where they were or how close they were to camp. It led to quite a good discussion and maybe helped them understand what it means to be “exiled.”

Camp Director of Jewish Life #1: Tisha B’Av is the most challenging Jewish program to run in a summer camp environment, where we are trying to nurture positive feelings about Jewish living and learning. At Capital Camps & Retreat Center we focus on the rabbinic idea that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam [senseless hatred] and on Rav Kook’s complementary idea that the Temple would only be rebuilt because of ahavat chinam [senseless love]. Last year our program began with a focus on bullying—modern kids’ experience of senseless hatred. Several older campers volunteered to share personal narratives of being bullied. You could have heard a pin drop as they spoke. Then, the drama chug [activity] performed the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, which defines senseless hatred, and then the idea of ahavat chinam. Then each cabin received a large wooden panel that had part of the cityscape of Jerusalem outlined on most of it, and a blank space on the bottom. The kids were asked first to each write down on a piece of paper an act of senseless love that they were committed to doing over the course of the holiday. Then they broke into two groups, the painters and the poets. The painters painted the cityscape. The poets wrote six-word poems on senseless love. (My favorite: “Kindness is contagious. Sneeze on everyone.”) When it was completed, the whole camp gathered in the amphitheater and, as we sang Yerushalayim shel Zahav, we lifted the 27 panels one by one—no one knew that they all fit together to form one large mural until this point—and literally rebuilt Jerusalem on the foundation of kindness. This year we are focusing on the same big idea by partnering with the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, because donating the marrow of your own bones to a complete stranger is an act of senseless love. Both a bone marrow donor and recipient will be speaking, and each village will be making part of a thank-you package to send to donors to celebrate their senseless love.

Cantor #2: I remember from when I was a camper the sense of everything changing, of an evening falling into a day that was so different from everything else that summer—so serious and somber and such an intense way of reflection that changed the whole tone of the camp. At Camp Modin, the evening before Tisha B’Av we have a beautiful ceremony where the entire floor of the huge rec center is filled with styrofoam cups, with small tapers nailed to the bottom, in the shape of a Jewish star. The campers file in from the lawn and 400 kids sit around the star. The lights are off, and the older campers do a program that has everything from historical quotes from Anne Frank to facts about the Holocaust and other tragedies throughout Jewish history. We take them through a journey and sing Eli Eli, and Gesher Tzar M’od and Oseh Shalom and other songs of peace. Even the little kids feel a sense of awe. After the next day’s programming we have a wonderful break-fast in the evening, and the camp director makes omelets for the kids who were fasting. He spends a long time making personal omelets.

Rabbi #3: At Camp JRF in the evening, kids sit around large pieces of paper on the floor. Once everyone is gathered together, we invite campers and staff to use charcoal—literally burned wood from fires earlier in the summer—to depict challenging moments from their lives, as the sounds of Eicha fill the air. We could certainly use artist’s charcoal purchased specifically for this moment, but it doesn’t give the same visceral, personal experience and feeling of connection as does the burnt wood. We end with a brief teaching about the ways in which our personal and communal challenges can make us stronger and how we are lucky to have the opportunities afforded to us as American Jews in the 21st century. Campers file out of the room in silence, and a handful of staff have an opportunity to stay back and clean up. While this last part might sound unimportant, we often find that the opportunity to see what campers have drawn/written is one of the most powerful parts of the experience for our staff and leadership teens. Kids have addressed bullying, family members dying, challenging family dynamics, discrimination, and personal anxieties and struggles. During our havayot [experiential education programs] the next day, we’ve done such things as dug a geniza, built new benches for our beit tefillah [outdoor chapel], and cleared nature trails. The intention of this work is to take a day when we commemorate destruction and turn it into one of reconstruction. As is the case at the end of the program the previous evening, we want campers to understand that, as a community, we have the ability to pick ourselves up and move from darkness to light.

There you go. Rule #1: Do not traumatize or abuse the children. Rule #2: This holiday is an opportunity for reflection, connection, and community. Don’t blow it. See Rule #1.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.