Global Jewish Reflections | This Tisha B’Av, I’m Finding Hope in Romania’s Dynamic Jewish Life

For Weitzman-JDC Fellow Karen Martin, Tisha B'Av is a time to reflect on a difficult past — and her hopes for a vibrant Jewish future.

By Karen Martin - Weitzman-JDC Fellow and HUC-JIR Rabbinical Student | August 2, 2022

Karen Martin (far left) visiting the JDC-supported JCC Bucharest with Rabbi Josh Mikutis and fellow HUC-JIR students.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

The first time I observed Tisha B’Av was in my mid-twenties. I grew up in a family that wasn’t deeply connected to our Jewish community, and I had no idea that there were fast days beyond Yom Kippur. As an adult, I started by working in Jewish communities and only then began to slowly connect more to my synagogue community on a personal level.

That first Tisha B’Av, I vividly remember sitting on the floor in a large open room, the space lit only by dozens of candles. The mood was somber, and yet — surrounded by more than 80 Jews of all ages and backgrounds seated in a large ring around the room, facing each other and sharing the light as we listened to the book of Lamentations — I found the service to be beautiful and moving, not just sad. It was the first time I had experienced shared grief and loss on such a level.  

Looking back at that experience, it isn’t the loss that sticks with me, but the hope. Sitting on that floor, I heard men and women chanting — reading the entirety of Eicha in Hebrew and English. When reading Lamentations, we read of destruction and our desire for God’s presence to return to us, but I was struck by the presence and diversity of those sitting together that day and our desire to be a united people. To me, that’s life, and that’s vibrancy. It’s a reminder year after year, and generation after generation, that we — the Jewish people — are still here, still living dynamic Jewish lives. 

Karen Martin

Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is perhaps the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. The Mishna teaches us that the date commemorates five calamities that for centuries defined the fate of the Jewish people: the report of the ten Biblical spies that caused panic and despair, preventing the generation who left Egypt from entering the promised land; the destruction of Solomon’s Temple by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE; the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE by the Romans; the defeat of the Bar Kokhba revolt with its massive cost of lives; and the subsequent razing of the Temple Mount. Later generations have added other Jewish calamities that happened in the late summer months to that list — various European expulsions, the day Heinrich Himmler received approval for the “Final Solution” (9 Av, 5701 — Aug. 2, 1941), and the day mass expulsions started from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka (9 Av 5702 — July 23, 1942), among others. 

In our yearly reading cycle of the Haftarah, we spend the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’av reading about affliction, sadness, and destruction, and then we spend the next nine reading words of consolation. Our tradition teaches us that we need more time to recover from heartache, but recovery does come.

This lesson was again brought home to me on a recent trip to Bucharest, Romania as a participant of the Weitzman-JDC Fellowship for Global Jewish Leaders at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). During our trip, we learned that Romania’s Jewish population was roughly 800,000 before the Second World War, but it was cut in half by the Holocaust. In the years that followed, due to the hardships endured under a communist regime and support of Romania’s Chief Rabbi Dr. Moses Rosen during the aliyah process, the country’s Jewish population dwindled to less than a tenth of its original size. 

But despite this difficult story, I’m once again feeling fueled by hope.

Our tradition teaches us that we need more time to recover from heartache, but recovery does come.

I went to Bucharest with my fellow third-year rabbinic students Ashira Boxman and Emma Dubin, and shortly after our flight finally landed hours later than expected, we received a text from our fellowship coordinator, JDC Entwine’s Rabbi Josh Mikutis, asking if we wanted to go to a wedding that evening. The only possible answer to that was: “Yes! Of course!”

We arrived at the hotel with just 30 minutes to go from bedraggled travelers to COVID-tested and wedding ready, but we managed! At Bucharest’s beautiful Choral Synagogue, we embraced our opportunity to rejoice with the bride and groom at their wedding, overjoyed to watch a local Jewish leader marry one of the actresses from the city’s Yiddish theater. Rabbis, community members, and honored guests — like Israel Sabag, JDC’s country director for Romania — delivered the sheva brachot, the seven wedding blessings. It was incredible to see and feel the connections between our own Jewish lives — my husband and I had recently celebrated 13 years of marriage, and many of the rituals felt familiar — and those living on the other side of the world.

Karen Martin (far right) at the Romanian Yiddish Theater in Bucharest.

The next day, we had the opportunity to learn more about the Jewish community of Bucharest, proudly supported by JDC and the Federation of Romanian Jewish Communities. We toured a community Jewish daycare, played Rummikub with a group of senior citizens, learned about the JDC and Romanian Jewish community’s humanitarian response to the Ukraine crisis, and enjoyed a delicious Shabbat dinner at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) with more than 100 participants. 

As a member of the “COVID class,” the group of HUC-JIR students unable to spend the traditional seminary year in Israel, I just arrived home from a summer semester in Israel. While there, it was a struggle for so many of us to connect to the idea of Jewish peoplehood when the false dichotomies of Israel/United States and observant/secular can feel all too real and too divisive.

But not for me.

My trip to Bucharest with JDC reminded me of the truth: We are a global people, and we are united not by one history, land, or inheritance, but by many diverse cultures, and traditions. Even diminished, even scattered, when Jews come together to mourn or to celebrate, to be together in community as we have always been drawn to do, it’s further proof that we’re alive and we’ll endure together.

For me, that’s the hidden message of hope at the heart of Tisha B’Av.

Karen Martin grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. After attending Kenyon College, Karen moved with her husband to Chicago, where she earned an MA in the Humanities from the University of Chicago and an MA in Jewish Professional Studies from the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning & Leadership. Karen has worked in a variety of Jewish settings in both Cincinnati and Chicago. Most recently, she served as the executive director of Rockdale Temple until she began her studies at HUC-JIR in 2020.

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