In July 2006, as a young and curious college student, I arrived in Santiago, Chile for a semester as an exchange student at one of the country’s universities. I had the opportunity to live with a warm and generous Jewish family that is part of Santiago’s relatively small Orthodox community. I arrived about two weeks before Tisha b’Av, after having spent a few weeks traveling in Israel, which was then in the middle of a war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Much like the current situation, the media coverage of the war was fairly uniform in its condemnation of Israel, and the media coverage in Latin America was no exception to this state of affairs.
During the first several days of my semester abroad, I felt, unsurprisingly, lost and out of place. I had a low-grade headache at the end of each day after attempting to function in a language I was still learning and I was not particularly skilled at getting around the city with public transportation. To add to my feeling of disorientation, during one of my first days in school, I picked up an abandoned copy of a student publication at the university that had some coverage of the war in Israel. Scribbled in black ink across that page was a nasty epithet followed by “Judios.” My Spanish was not fully functioning at the time, but I didn’t need a Ph.D in foreign languages to read hate speech. (Thankfully, my experience in Chile for the remaining months of my stay was otherwise extremely positive; the Chilean people, Jewish and not Jewish, were overall very kind and helpful to the visiting American.)
A couple days after this incident, on erev Tisha b’av, I arrived home from a day of classes, ate a traditional pre-fast meal with my host family and went to synagogue to hear Eicha read aloud with the rest of the Jewish community. I was still feeling quite out of place in my new surroundings, but tried to mentally connect to the holiday. We arrived at the synagogue and sat on the floor with candles surrounding us, otherwise in darkness, as the slow, mournful, chanting of Eicha began. At that moment, something occurred that I didn’t expect and will never forget. Amidst all of my disorientation of being in a foreign environment, I suddenly felt more at home than ever. Surrounded by other Jews who spoke a primary language different from my own and who were raised hundreds of miles away from my community and family, we all sat on the floor together and mourned the same loss – the loss of unity amongst our people and expulsion from our home thousands of years ago, ultimately dispersing us across the globe and setting in motion endless internal discord and suffering at the hands of other nations of the world. All of the sudden, I felt as if I were surrounded by family. It was then that the tragedy of Tisha b’Av became real to me.
The feeling of deep connection that I felt that night on the candlelit floor to all of my Jewish brothers and sisters, wherever they are in the world, and the collective loss and suffering we have shared, is not something I can aptly put into words. Even if were are separated by biology, culture, and political beliefs, we remain individuals in a nation inextricably intertwined by our fate and spiritual fiber.
It is the same feeling of profound connection to my people, my family, that I experienced a few weeks ago when, during lunch with colleagues of all different backgrounds, my phone buzzed with a new email, and I opened it to learn from a friend in Israel that the bodies of Eyal, Naftali, and Gil-ad had been found, and I ran into the bathroom to hide from my colleagues and cry, only to clean my face up before emerging because…how could I expect them to understand? You didn’t know these boys personally, they likely would have thought.
It was the same feeling of intense connection behind the gut-wrenching sensation I experienced when the news reported that the Holtzbergs were murdered in Mumbai, when Rabbi Sandler and his two children and 8-year old Miriam Monsonego were slain in Toulouse, France, and when the Fogel family was mercilessly stabbed to death in Itamar. What have you done to my family?
It’s the same sense of closeness underlying the ache I felt in my chest when I opened the news a few days ago and saw a photo of young Noam Bar at the grave of the man she thought she would one day marry, 21-year old Tal Yifrah, an Israeli soldier who fell in Gaza defending his nation. Because to me, although I live an ocean away in a different country, these are not foreign soldiers fighting a foreign war. These boys are my brothers, our sons, our fathers.
It’s the same intangible bond that floods me with relief when we share in another’s joy after a period of personal darkness – it’s the moment I receive an email blast to a group of women who have been praying for a cancer patient they don’t even know, written by his mother to let us know that her son’s tumor was eradicated, and I am moved to tears as if this woman were my own sister.
It is the same adrenaline rush and raw emotion that I feel every time at a Jewish wedding the moment the chatan breaks a glass under the chuppah. Suddenly, after a long day in the hustle and bustle of the world, in the middle of this wedding ceremony, I am home. What other nation is like you, Israel, whose sons and daughters interrupt their moment of greatest joy on their wedding day to recall the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and the deaths of scores of Jews at the hands of the Roman empire 2,000 years ago?
We are approaching another Tisha b’Av this year, and the state of Israel is at war. But more fundamentally, Jews are under attack. It doesn’t matter where we may fall on the political spectrum, what we think about the strategy of this war, in what part of the world we reside, or how religious we may feel – as a Jew, it is my privilege and responsibility, and a unique gift, to be part of this eternal family, and its members are suffering. This Tisha b’Av, when I sit on the floor and hear the chronology of our expulsion from our ancestral homeland and the destruction of our spiritual home that once stood in this world, it is the pain of my extended family that I will feel most.
“As for our brothers, the whole house of Israel, who are given over to trouble or captivity, whether they abide on the sea or on dry land: may the Almighty have mercy upon them, and bring them forth from trouble to relief, from darkness to light, and from subjection to redemption, now, speedily and at a near time.”
Thank you to Batia and the Santiago Jewish community for making me part of your family and giving me the opportunity to learn this important lesson.