NEW YORK – For Srully Stein, Tisha B’Av is about more than commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples: It represents the loss he faced after he decided to leave the ultra-Orthodox community he was born into.
Hailing from a rabbinical dynasty, Stein, 23, grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family in Williamsburg, New York. At age 18 he met his wife for just a few moments before they were engaged. They had a son, but he dreamt of college and the world outside his insular community. After struggling with conflicting feelings, Stein left the insular community and divorced his wife.
“For me leaving was kind of a destruction of my own personal temple. I personally lost everything I had: my community, my job, much of my family, and I had to rebuild my own spiritual and personal life,” Stein said.
Stein is hardly alone. The Jewish world was rocked this week by the apparent suicide of 30-year-old Faigy Mayer, who leapt to her death from a New York rooftop bar. Mayer left her Hassidic community at age 24 and was estranged from her family. Friends say she had conducted a longtime battle against depression.
Stein is relatively lucky and today has joint custody of his son, with whom he spends every other weekend and holiday. He talks with his parents every day, but has lost contact with his extended family. Now a sophomore at Columbia University, Stein studies political science and economics.
Stein will speak about this journey on Tisha B’Av as part of a special panel that Reshet Ramah, Ramah’s alumni network, is holding at 9:30 pm on July 25 at the Culture Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
‘Instead of focusing on the past, and looking at what we lost, we are looking to the future’
“Instead of focusing on the past, and looking at what we lost, we are looking to the future,” said Stein, who is now a member of Footsteps, an organization that helps ultra-Orthodox Jews transition to life in mainstream society.
Following a traditional reading of Eicha, Reshet Ramah will present a discussion on issues of contemporary Jewish identity and engage in discussion of the diversity within today’s Jewish community. Aside from Stein, panelists will include a Jew by Choice (someone who converted from Christianity to Judaism), and an activist member of the LGBTQ community.
Part of the Conservative/Masorti movement, Reshet Ramah strives to build a broader and more inclusive community, said Dana Levinson, Reshet Ramah’s assistant director for Alumni and Community Engagement. As such Tisha B’Av presented a unique opportunity for Ramah alumna to share their personal struggles within the Jewish community.
“We want to make the point that each voice contributes to the greater Jewish community. We wanted to mark the day without focusing so much on loss and destruction, but rather on renewal,” Levinson said.
Over at Camp Ramah Berkshire, when Tisha B’Av arrives, Andrew Belinfante knows exactly how campers and staff will spend the day – in somber reflection seated on the floor in one of the camp’s recreation centers.
This year however, his second summer away from camp, the New Yorker will speak about building a stronger Jewish community
“There are so many different types of Jews. I happen to be a gay Jew, and I will talk about what that is like in a ritually observant community,” said Belinfante, director of programs at the nondenominational NY-based Mechon Hadar.
“We are seemingly progressive now on these issues, but, there is often still a hesitancy when we talk about them. We need to push through that so people feel more comfortable with these conversations. It’s our responsibility as Jews to create a stronger sense of community,” said Belinfante.
The Conservative movement itself has taken a more welcoming stance on social issues in the past several years. It voted unanimously to sanction same-sex marriage in 2012 and it recently applauded the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.
In addition, Conservative rabbis are also increasingly willing to welcome intermarried couples. The shift came after the Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews found identification with the Conservative movement had sharply declined. About 11 percent of Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 identify as Conservative compared with 24 percent of Jews aged 65 and older.
It’s vital to openly discuss how Jews relate to other Jews in order to strengthen the Jewish community, said Rabbi Abigail Treu, director, community outreach and young adult engagement.
“We need to make room for everybody who wants to be here and that starts by listening to each other,” Treu said.
“If there is a take away message from all of this it’s that there’s room for everybody. There is room for all of our voices and all of our stories,” she said.