At Schechter Seminary event, rabbis ponder how to mark moments of joy in a time of tragedy

Dozens gather at the school’s Jerusalem campus to discuss the theoretical and practical considerations of balancing personal celebrations with national mourning

Around New Year’s Day, a meme began circulating widely across social media, reading: “It’s not January 1st, here in Israel it’s October 86th.”

The comment captured the sentiment felt by many Israelis — and to a lesser extent Jews around the world — that time has slowed, maybe even stopped completely, since the Oct. 7 terror attacks.

And yet it hasn’t. Life has, in fact, continued: babies have been born, children have reached the age of bar or bat mitzvah, couples have planned to have weddings.

How then to balance the current moment of tragedy, grief and terror with the celebrations of Jewish lifecycle events?

To address this question — and some others — the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem organized a day of learning last week, bringing together leading thinkers and some 40 participants, mostly current and former students.

The day of learning, which was held in honor of Rabbi David Aronson, the former president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, featured lectures about the role of religious rituals, the psychological and sociological aspects of grieving, as well as practical discussions about officiating ceremonies and a presentation on a secondary tragedy of war — the potential for women to become agunot, or chained in marriage, if their husbands go missing, are taken captive or suffer a severe injury in battle. 

Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker, the dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and rabbi of Kehillat Ramot-Zion in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood, led the discussion about the practical considerations before presiding over a religious ceremony in the post-Oct. 7 world.

“The title of the day was ‘Yom Assoni, Yom Sassoni’ (‘A Disastrous Day, a Joyous Day’), which is a play on words, but also a quote from a poem by Ibn Gabirol from the 11th century,” Rowen Baker told eJewishPhilanthropy.

“This duality that we carry in our lives at this point — we always carry it, but I think it’s in a heightened way [now] — is expressed by this phrase that shows how close ‘asson’ [disaster] is to ‘sasson’ [joy], in how they sounds and also in our experience, especially when we want to celebrate something in this time of disaster, of great grief and loss,” she said.

“We wouldn’t have planned [to have a celebration in a time of tragedy], but the time has come and something is happening that marks something significant in life, and we want to be joyous about it and we want to be celebratory, but we also are in a constant state of deep grief,” she said. “And I think that’s part of what makes this time in Israel and in the Jewish world in general so significant and so very different from what we’re used to…. That makes it hard to figure out how to celebrate when the time comes to celebrate.”

The goal of the event, she said, was to enable the participants to officiate events in this time that are “sensitive and genuine, and also uplifting and a force of hope.”

Though the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary is affiliated with the Conservative/Masorti movement, the presenters and participants also came from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College and the Yad La’isha organization, which advocates for “chained” women and is part of the Orthodox Ohr Torah Stone network.

“It is an issue that everyone is dealing with. It is not a denominational issue, it is a Jewish issue, it is an Israeli issue, it is something that we are all dealing with,” Rowen Baker said.

A day of learning in honor of Aronson is organized every year, funded by an endowment from the family. “We dedicate the learning each year to something timely and we felt this was important for us to discuss at this point,” she said.

In her presentation, Rowen Baker noted that this combination of happiness and tragedy is already present in many Jewish rituals, perhaps most famously at Jewish weddings, when the groom traditionally recites the line, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy,” and stomps on a glass as a metaphor for the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

Rabbi David Paran, who attended the event and led a discussion group, said this remembrance of the destruction of the Temples under the chuppah is “fundamental to the Jewish experience and really to human experience.”

“Understanding that suffering and sadness are part of human experience is the only way to experience true joy,” Paran told eJP after the event. “And, in contrast, when we experience tragedy, there is also joy in the past.”

At the same time, Rowen Baker stressed that these issues are individual and dynamic.

“A wedding on Oct. 8 and a wedding on Jan. 9 won’t look the same. They’ll both be different from Oct. 5 or 6, but they won’t look the same because the processes that we’re going through are different and the stages that we’re going through are different and in some ways a wedding on Jan. 9 is more complicated to plan than a wedding on Oct. 8 because people are in very different places,” she said.

Rowen Baker said she also offered a more quotidian example from her synagogue, where an attempt to be considerate to one group is off-putting to another.

“We changed the six psalms [that we normally say for] Kabbalat Shabbat for six psalms that talk about grief and cry for help and salvation. And that was our Kabbalat Shabbat,” she said. “And then my husband came back from the reserves for Shabbat and he came to shul and he was really shaken by this. He said, ‘Why is everyone depressed here? I can’t stand this depression.’”

“And so the job of the rabbi becomes more complicated to balance all of these things and to keep the event with an integrity of happiness and hope,” she said.

Paran, one of the leaders of Pardes Hanna’s Masorti Congregation Darchei Noam, said the gathering gave him additional tools and thoughts to consider for religious ceremonies.

“It was a significant meeting because it was really the combination of theory and practice and personal experience, which all felt like they were melding together,” he said. “The answer is there isn’t an answer. We have to provide the platform and let people ask the question and let them find their way through that.”

Paran said the day of learning also drove home the parallels between Jewish rituals of mourning and the grieving process that Israeli society as a whole has been experiencing since Oct. 7.

The first few days after the massacres, Israeli society was truly at a standstill, unsure of how to proceed and what to do, similar to the period after a person has died and before burial, “where there’s a lot of confusion and you’re still dealing with the shock,” he said. 

“And then after the first week… it felt like the whole country was sitting shiva,” he said. 

“And then during the shloshim [the first month of mourning, when people tend to avoid most public celebrations], it was like we were going through the shloshim,” he said. “And since the end of the shloshim, there are periods where we are continuing with our lives, including sometimes even celebrations, but it is during that year of mourning.”

Paran acknowledged that the parallels are somewhat muddied by the fact that unlike in a single death, which is final, the tragedies in Israel have continued after Oct. 7, with mostly soldiers but also some civilians being killed in attacks from Gaza or Lebanon, with 136 people still being held hostage in Gaza, and with investigators determining that people initially thought to be alive but missing were in fact murdered in the attacks.

“This analogy allows us to process the tragedy and shocking event and its repercussions and navigate our way through it,” he said. 

“We use ritual and ceremony as a way to bring people together and to allow both individuals and communally to find a way to process.”