I hope you don’t mind me asking you this, in this forum. I have read some of your writings and watched some of your videos and I am especially keen to know what your overall perspective is of the corona period. What has been your biggest challenge and what is your greatest take away from it all. I am asking here because as much as I want to know the answers for my own research (I am asking this of various Rabbis and other faith leaders) I thought it would be of immense benefit to all your readers if you were willing to share your brief insights. With many thanks in anticipation.
When COVID 19 hit these shores we were by and large oblivious to it at first. We assumed certain precautions – no hand touching – but otherwise we more or less dismissed it. It was a passing phase. Why we assumed that mind-set while it was clearly devastating other parts of the world I will never know. Meanwhile, we had Purim which brought many Jews in close proximity to one another – just sitting together in closed spaces, celebrating. In my shul’s case this also meant having a much larger gathering of some 400 in the main shul – and then another 70 or so in a downstairs shul.
Amongst the 70 downstairs there was clearly already one infected individual – a super spreader if you will – how could they have known – how could anyone have known – and within 4 weeks, numerous people in attendance at that service took ill, alas many of them died. Some didn’t but were obvious carriers and their spouses died. In one month I was personally confronted with near 30 bereavements.
This same scene repeated itself in Jewish communities across many parts of the world. People I knew from my home town in Toronto. People I knew from New York where I lived for a number of years. It was relentless – it was – to be frank – scary.
Now, I am someone with great faith and to be sure, this devastation all around me didn’t shake my faith. It upset me – very much – but having grown up with a mother who is a Holocaust survivor I was always able to keep things in context.
But the same of course cannot be said for many others. My role as a Rabbi and my upbringing from my parents, may have fortified me – but who was going to fortify them – strengthen them? That was my biggest challenge. Finding the words, finding the right balm that could sooth even if not heal the gaping wounds.
Challenging times brings out in one latent potential. I determined that the key factor was keeping the community engaged – or as I coined each email – Mill Hill Synagogue- Bringing the Community to You. And so I had to let my creative juices flow and start creating all sorts of inspirational videos – online classes; virtual prayer which has its own limitations in Jewish law. Online guest speakers – sometimes having nothing to do with religion per se but an opportunity to still engage people. I mean I would never get Tony Blair to speak in my shul but through connections I was able to get him online for a half hour interview. Likewise with the Mayor Sadiq Kahn. Next week Nelsan Mendela’s prison guard etc.
There was also the very real need to reach out to the bereaved families. And what with lockdown posing its own limitations, it meant being in regular touch with them over weeks again and again just to offer them some solace.
To my mind the most tragic element in all of this was the fact that so many people died alone. It’s a painful thought to know that loved ones couldn’t really say goodbye. I think that’s going to take a long time or maybe a lifetime for some of them to get over.
The saddest moment was that one afternoon that I was putting on a tie, for the benefit of a ZOOM lecture I was to be giving in another country and my young daughter looked at me: “Oh are you off to another funeral?”
The most inspirational element was the level of involvement – how people turn to their faith in times of crisis. While a Friday night would normally draw say 50/60(as opposed to Shabbos day when several hundred turn up) – a ZOOM Friday night (obviously before the onset of Shabbos) brought in a couple of hundred – including many one would otherwise never see. Until today it still has a very strong showing.
I also think that inasmuch as Judaism puts a lot of emphasis on family, in our fast paced modern technological world that could often encounter severe interruption. This time period has enabled if you will, a back to basics. Time alone walking with my wife – with my children – they’ve never had their father around as much as they did during this time. Four months no traveling for lectures, no running to and fro. Sure, the “home challenge” was unique and exhausting in its own right, but I was still always there (even if not always “present in the moment”). The onus is on me – on all of us – that if we are adjusting into some kind of “new normal” – we maintain those paradigm shifts and always be aware of what is meaningful and of true value. We don’t want to ever experience anything negative in our lives – but the onus remains on us to ensure to always turn whatever darkness into light.