Navigating Into the Three Weeks
SimchaThe Anguish Is A Reminder That Jews Survived

Navigating Into the Three Weeks

I tried to take advantage of the time from the 17th of Tammuz until Tisha B’Av to build up my strength as a Jew.

Rabbi David Geffen

Rabbi David Geffen is a native Atlantan and Conservative rabbi who lives in Jerusalem.

Not too much of summer has passed yet, so we are still waiting for the wonderful vacations we have planned. In 1946, when I returned with my parents to Atlanta after my father finished six years as a judge advocate, I was informed that I was going to be attending , the Educational Alliance camp, in August during the second session.

I was a little taken aback when I received the news, but I assumed it was for the best. Only 7, I was traveling to the wilderness of Rutledge to become a young man.

As it turned out, it was a physical experience and had some elements of spirituality too.

We lived in tents on wooden platforms, four cots to a tent. When the weather was dry, no problem, but when it rained, the camp was a mud field. Moreover, the tents leaked, so the counselors had to figure out how to seal them. My counselor was Ralph Saul, and he did an effective job.

The spiritual part came on Shabbat. I had never been away from home, which meant that I never celebrated Shabbat except with my parents and grandparents. When the parents were informed what we campers should bring, the instructions were to make sure we had whites for Shabbat. So I had my whites — shirts and pants and maybe socks.

On Friday afternoon, a few hours before Shabbat, we had a chance to shower and put on our whites. About half an hour before Shabbat, we made some type of formation, and the girls who were across the lake came to join us in their whites.

In those days, Hebrew songs were limited, so we sang “Hava Nagila” and “David Melech Yisrael” and “Artza Aleinu.” We did not know it, because Daniel Morgan was not a Zionist camp, but the staffers from the director down were Zionists. They wanted us to have a feel of Eretz Yisrael.

Not too many of us made it to Israel to live, but the camp setting and atmosphere were wonderfully Eretz Yisrael-oriented. Being at Blue Star for three years later as a teenager, I believe that Harry and Herman Popkin, of blessed memory, also wanted us to think about Israel as an option.

By the late ’50s, of course, when I was on the staff there, Israel already existed.

In the Daniel Morgan dining room, we sang “Sholom Aleichem,” and a counselor from Congregation Or VeShalom chanted the Kiddush. Someone else cut the challah — in those days big challahs at camp were not readily available, so we got only challah dribs and drabs.

We ate, then we sang some zemirot (hymns). I can remember only a few, but one was “Come, O Sabbath Day.”

I was small. My physical abilities were limited, so some of the older campers worked me over — always telling me, “David, this is for your own good.”

My first summer in camp was in August, so Tisha B’Av and the Three Weeks had been completed. From then on, whenever I could, I tried to take advantage of the time from the 17th of Tammuz until Tisha B’Av to build up my strength as a Jew.

Why was that important to me? On the one hand, I saw my late father, Louis Geffen, putting on tefillin every morning before he ate and went to work. Clearly, my grandfather also did it, but usually at Shacharit minyan at Shearith Israel. He was the rabbi. My father a lawyer; had to be at work, so he davened at home.

What did I do for this spiritual lift? First, I went swimming at the Progressive Club. That was fairly dangerous in those years because polio germs were floating around, but I wanted to be courageous.

As I got older, I was scared stiff about polio. Being courageous meant I could relate to Judah Maccabee, Bar Kochba, and my cousins Bert Lewyn and Professor Dov Levin, both of whom died this past year.

Bert survived in Berlin; Dov survived in the Lithuanian forests as a partisan. As I have written before, our family had its own special giborim.

The second thing I did was try to go to shul with my zayde several times a week in the morning. I woke up very early where we lived at Washington and Bass, dressed and hurried to meet him at 593 Washington St.

We walked together, and I sat by his side at the davening in the beis medrash. I followed the siddur as best I could — later I did a lot better. We walked home together, and my bubbe Sara Hene gave me breakfast. There was no school, so I did not have to rush away.

The third thing I did was take a walk to the Capitol and explore the museum cases there. I believe there were stuffed animals, but there may have been Native American models as well. I think I did it for two reasons:

  • I was in the key building in Georgia, and I could easily walk in because we were Georgians and Americans and were free.
  • I felt the history of the state through the displays in the cases. I knew I was at home.

When I reached Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the year, I was reminded of the anguish of our people, but because of my courage and a little more davening and a feeling of freedom, I knew that the Jews had survived even after a terrible Holocaust and that they would survive for many years to come.

The Three Weeks this year begin the evening of July 10.

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