On July 15, the same Sunday morning as the World Cup Finals, a passionate and outspoken group of more than a dozen young Jewish adults gathered at the Moishe House in Canton for a program called “Brunch & Learn Tisha B’Av: Turning Tragedy into Action.” Tisha B’Av is the most mournful day on the Jewish calendar, commemorating the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem.
The intimate gathering was hosted by Repair the World: Baltimore, a part of Jewish Volunteer Connection, which is an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, and it was about as informal as a curated discussion could get. There was no stage or podium; attendees spoke freely and — most of the time — didn’t interrupt one another.
Many of the guests were active, if not professional, advocates for social justice, and worked in fields ranging from substance abuse counseling to politics.
One of the attendees, David Estrin, deals with turning tragedy into action as part of his everyday work. The grandson of four Holocaust survivors, Estrin is the founder and CEO of Together We Remember, a nonprofit that uses social media to transform Holocaust commemoration into action.
“To me, these sorts of gatherings are the work we need to be doing,” said Estrin of the Brunch & Learn. “Getting folks who have different points of view into the same room to have a really constructive discussion on the issues that are most urgent to our society, locally and globally, and to put that into the context of Jewish history, I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
While Tisha B’Av was the occasion for the gathering, the discussion was not intended to stay within the parameters of the holiday. Repair the World program associates Diana Goldsmith and Josh Sherman were there to facilitate the event, which included having the group read aloud from two essays, “In the Beginning There Was Not: A Tisha B’Av Reflection,” by Joshua Schwartz, and “A ‘Choice to Chase Away the Darkness,’ in Baltimore,” by Simon Fitzgerald, from The Baltimore Sun.
The choice of essays was illustrative of the event’s purpose: to see the way the atrocities Jews have faced are analogous to contemporary injustice. Topics ranged from the Spanish Inquisition to the Occupy Wall Street movement, and from the Holocaust to the Baltimore Uprising in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray.
The group was varied not only in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation, but also when it came to opinions about policy implementation. Some topics got a little heated. There was debate about whether the leadership of Baltimore City, a majority black city run by a black mayor, can be racist against its own black citizens, for instance, and about whether it is right for Judaism to require that people relive trauma by observing Tisha B’Av.
“Those uncomfortable moments brought more depth to the conversation,” said Darrell Jackson, who was at the event. “If we’re in a room where everyone agrees, there is no conversation. I think especially with this day of remembrance, it’s important for us to remember the tragedy and then learn from the tragedy.”
Karina Mandell, a Moishe House resident and founder and CEO of Green Smart Cities, called the disagreements a challenge, but one that encourages growth in the community.
“This conversation was invaluable to giving us an opportunity to critically think about our responsibility as Jews and as citizens in our communities and to the way we relate to past present and future,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for us to think about what actions we can take.”
Josh Sherman, a program associate at Repair the World, is confident that this group will continue to engage.
“People are walking away still having conversations,” he said after the program ended. “People have paired up and are still talking about things that were brought up during the conversation. People are invested, people are engaged in wanting to make a change in our community.”