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When I was eight or nine years old, I invited a friend over to my home for a play date. Before he could consider joining me for what I presumed would be a fun afternoon together, he posed one essential question, based upon which his decision would be rendered: “What are we going to do?”

I was probably too young to appreciate this as a slight, though I did gain valuable insight into human nature. For most individuals, the prospect of sitting in the presence of another person without being distracted, entertained, or engaged in some premeditated activity is agonizing.

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Fast forward 33 years, and society has become even more terrified of quiet unprogrammed moments in our days. As our attention spans shrink, sermons, lectures and even films have been forced to adapt to the new reality. Educational videos have been cut down to bite-size nuggets of professionally produced infomercials containing brief moments of general Torah concepts, but mostly filled with inspirational vignettes and business advice for the young professional whose most profound goal in this world is to “become the best version of themselves” (whatever that means). At the same time, shiurim offered by first class talmidei chachamim and roshei yeshiva barely garner a fraction of their views online. The need to be regaled and stimulated has left us with a serious problem on one day of the year in particular…Tisha B’Av.

We struggle with Tisha B’Av because we are hungry, because it is typically impossibly hot outside, because it’s downright depressing, but also because so much of the day consists of dead airtime. Once we have exhausted our capacity for Kinos and the Talmud’s account of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, viewed our fill of monologue mussar videos, there remains a good eight hours of unprogrammed time in our day. Time in which we are forced to be alone with our thoughts. Eicha Yashva Badad! Read these words homiletically, not only as a lament meaning “Woe, how she (Jerusalem) sits all alone,” but also as a question: “How is she supposed sit alone and do nothing else?

The challenge of finding meaningful Tisha B’Av-appropriate activities is hardly novel. The problem is that we haven’t been very good at identifying those activities. Let me illustrate the point by reviewing some extreme examples of programmatic ideas that do not resonate with me. Contained in the pantheon of Jewish summer camp mythology is the story of one camp that tasked the campers to construct a model of the Beis HaMikdash only to set it ablaze before the eyes of horrified and teary-eyed children. Another camp elected to show the 1992 crime thriller, “A Stranger Among Us” in which Melanie Griffith dresses up as a frum woman while she investigates the murder of a chasidic man in the diamond business. Needless to say, nothing about that film constituted appropriate viewing material for Tisha B’Av and is questionable material for any day of the year. Still, many summer camps and shuls favor the idea of showing sad films, preferably centered around the Holocaust.

I admit that this is not a bad way to get into a despondent mood, but being depressed is not the objective of Tisha B’Av; it is rather a day set aside to reflect upon the tragedies and ultimately to recognize the mistakes we made along the way that led to some of those misfortunes.

I would like to suggest we use part of our day to engage in self-reflection, personal growth and making practical changes that impact our families and the Jewish people as a whole in a positive way. Here are four ideas for programs and conversations, though they are still in “beta mode” – I am hopeful that they could help many focus their energies and thoughts.

  • Marriage workshop – Our Sages teach us the second Temple was destroyed as a result of sinas chinam, baseless hatred. What if we were to actively work on combating sinas chinam, not with lofty ideas or by passively listening to magidei shiur but in a practical and down to earth manner? Marital discord is often the most painful source of conflict in our lives. Several years ago at our synagogue, a marriage therapist ran a practicum for couples on Tisha B’Av afternoon. Topics covered included avoiding hot buttons that lead to conflict, learning to disagree with respect, and developing trust in one another. The key is to engage the couples in honest dialogue and to emerge with new skills as well as a joint commitment to improve shalom bayis.
  • Anti-Bullying – At its core, the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza is a tale of bullying. Ask any day school principal and they will tell you that bullying is a regular phenomenon in their classrooms and beyond. And while the schools do a commendable job at addressing the issues, Jewish community tends to ignore bullying, preferring to deal with it reactively as opposed to proactively. This year we are partnering with experts at a local organization to address issues such as what to do if one’s child is a victim of bullying or is bullying others, as well as “cyberbullying” and bullying between adults. Our program is geared toward adults but could be adapted for children.
  • Plans for the Future – If there is a day in the calendar in which we are forced to contemplate our mortality, it is Tisha B’Av. Too often we push off the subject of end-of-life decisions because we believe that we will live forever, or because we are uncomfortable with the subject. But it’s better to be a little squeamish now and prepared than to go into the inevitable stage of life (after 120 years) and be woefully unprepared. Synagogue workshops might include planning for Jewish burial, having a halachic health care proxy, and speaking with loved ones about long-term care making a will. These critical conversations will avoid the enormous heartache and infighting that so often is the product of those who fail to plan ahead.
  • Aliyah – Additionally, on Tisha B’Av we reflect upon the tragedy of galus, the harsh condition that has caused our people to be spread across the four corners of the globe. Without impugning the motivations and rationales of those of us who still live in the Diaspora, why don’t we use the day to take practical steps toward aliyah? Even if you aren’t ready to make the move just yet, consider opening a file with Nefesh b’Nefesh, talk with family and friends who have successfully made aliyah.

The bottom line is that we can do better than movies and passive listening on Tisha B’Av. We can engage ourselves, our families, and communities in meaningful and life changing activities. More than answering the question “But what are we going to do?” we can take practical steps to address the themes of the day, turning strife and hopelessness into harmony and vision.

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Rabbi Shaanan Gelman has served as the rabbi of Kehilat Chovevei Tzion in Skokie, Il., for the past 15 years, is the president of The Chicago Rabbinical Council, and serves on the executive committee of the RCA. He is a musmach of RIETS and holds a BA in Computer Science from Yeshiva University.
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