As I get older, many of the moments that defined my Judaism as a teenager start to feel hollow. I think about nights spent around a lake at sleep-away camp in Pennsylvania, or in hotel dining rooms on school Shabbatons, singing on the verge of tears, arms around an acquaintance who, regardless of how little we talked during the week, felt like my spiritual partner in those quiet, dark moments. It all felt so pressing and so real. But as I study religion from the academic perspective in college, I’m starting to realize that some of those moments of supposed transcendence were merely moments that felt like magic but were really just a bunch of kids feeling idealistic on a starry summer night.
Tisha B’Av at camp is one exception. As the sun went down on the eve of the fast, each bunk would sit on their stoop, waiting with the solemnity of troops preparing for battle. Older staff members would arrive and hand a torch to a counselor. The campers would immediately get up, knowing what to do next. We’d walk in formation in circles around campus. Over a speaker, our camp director would sing Psalm 23, Gam Ki Elech over and over and over again: Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm, for You are at my side. Years later, I can’t think of those words without hearing his voice.
Walking with torches under a dark sky felt real and important. But this time it also undoubtedly was: there was a reason we were doing this, more concrete than faith or religious tradition. We were mourning people who had been murdered, places that had been destroyed. We had names and dates and locations. 586 B.C.E. Jerusalem. 135 C.E. Betar.
Of course, those places and dates were nowhere near here or now. None of us knew quite how sad we were supposed to be, or how to make ourselves feel what we were supposed to feel. On my last Tisha B’Av at camp, I was holding the torch as a counselor when it broke and fell just inches from one of my seven-year-old campers. After the fire was put out, I realized that the pang of fear in my chest was the clearest sensation of pain I’d ever felt on this day. That, of course, comes with guilt, which always seems like a close second to sadness.
But it was genuine mourning, not guilt, that our leaders at camp were after. They acknowledged that mourning something so distant would be hard, but they asked us to do it anyway. Other Jewish educators went easier on us; on a summer program at Brandeis, the director told us to think about contemporary tragedies and injustices and use those to stimulate the somber feelings that the day called for. But I believe that the way my camp went about it was the best way because it epitomized what Jewish education, and Jewish tradition as a whole, is capable of: transcending the barriers of who and what we care about.
Judaism is prepared for those moments when caring about something beyond ourselves gets hard. It’s why we have our rituals: we act, and then, slowly, we come to feel. Following in the tradition of Aristotle, Maimonides argued for what he called “habitual goodness”—do, and then the doing will gradually seep in and become part of your character. Judaism as a whole seems to argue for this outside-in approach: we have rituals set up to facilitate faith, morality, unity, and—in the case of Tisha B’av—empathy. We use actions—fasting, reading Megilat Eichah, walking with torches in hand at summer camp—to stir the emotion and make sure it holds.
This empathy training came in handy for me last year. It was the week before Yom Kippur, and my second week as the assistant opinion editor of my campus newspaper at Wesleyan. You may already know where I’m going with this; news coverage of the event was shockingly robust. Long story very short, our opinion section published a piece by a contributor denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement, and as a result of backlash to the piece, our newspaper was nearly defunded.
People usually assume that I’m angry about what happened. But there’s much more to the story than the near-defunding. It was a response—albeit a dangerous and, in my opinion, inappropriate one—to the fact that something was very, very wrong. Issues of diversity and equity on our newspaper’s staff and in our opinion section had finally been brought to the fore.
It wasn’t easy to hear that there was so much work to be done. We sat at meetings with our peers who felt marginalized by us, and we listened as they told us that we were complicit in something larger than us and more dangerous than we knew. Some of us cried in these crowded conference rooms. We took turns tearfully apologizing.
I went home to Brooklyn for Yom Kippur a few days later. This year there were no concerns about not being able to adequately feel the magnitude of the moment. Then I went back to school and, led by an incredible editorial staff, got to work in trying to fix what was broken and to live up to our promise of being a resource and platform for every student on campus. We started up a new column dedicated to voices not sufficiently heard on campus, and we worked on strategies for recruiting new writers who may not have felt comfortable contributing in the past. We haven’t made it all better yet, but we’ve begun.
I’ve come to realize that my Judaism holds all of the tools that I needed—and still need—to draw upon in order to do my part, to say to my peers who feel that their lives don’t matter, “This is not my fight, it is yours, but I am inextricably a part of it, and I hold myself accountable for the pain that my complicity causes.”
We need more than empathy. We need awareness and education and activism. But it starts with caring, with acknowledging that we cannot fully understand the experiences of others, but committing to never let those experiences out of our minds. And if Judaism can help us do that for the tragedies of years past, we have the capability to mold those same tools and use them to look outward instead of backward, to expand our network of compassion to those suffering beyond our own communities.
I’ve tried to stay as apolitical as possible here, but we’re all aware that this issue is a loaded one this week, what with the new platform from the Movement for Black Lives and its accusation of “genocide” against Israel. So many of my friends are struggling between their solidarity with the movement and their anger over this inaccurate language. This is a good time to remember Maimonides’s theme of habit: just thinking is not enough. I’ve heard many people argue that their lack of support for the Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t mean anything because of course they believe that black lives matter. But solidarity doesn’t mean belief. I don’t pretend to have the answer for what it should mean, but it has to mean something more than what we feel inside. It might mean protesting; or voicing concerns about the movement and its methods to involved friends instead of using those concerns as reason to withdraw support from the cause; or educating ourselves. To me, among other things, it means not voting for Donald Trump.
One of my favorite Hebrew words is lehachazik, the verb for “to hold.” It comes from the root chazak, which means strong. I’ve always loved the idea that this etymology represents: that the only way to hold something is tightly. I have always been inspired by the conviction and passion of the Jewish communities in which I’ve found myself. It’s time we bring these strengths to bear at a time when for many, holding tightly is getting harder and harder to do alone.
Isabel Fattal, a former intern at Tablet Magazine, attends Wesleyan University.