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Keeping the Faith While Social Distancing

During this time of year, I’m used to discussing plagues… for Passover. Under normal circumstances, in a few weeks I’d join my extended family of 25 people in dipping our fingers into bitter Kosher wine and naming God’s curses upon Egypt one by one, mechanically, as if reciting the alphabet. Yet, with the recent pandemic necessitating social distancing and preventing large gatherings, I’ll have to miss my Passover seder this April. I am a 27-year-old, single, Conservative Jewish woman from Canada, and I’ve never spent Pesach away from my family. During my years in Tel Aviv, I even flew twelve hours home to break matzah with my mishpucha (family). Last year, I moved to New York, my grandma Bevie’s old stomping ground, to try my hand at freelancing. I was glad to be just a hop, skip, and two-hundred-dollar Laguardia trip away from my mother, father, brother, and grandmother in Montreal. This meant I returned home for all of the major Jewish holidays. Due to the quarantine, I no longer have that option. I’m stuck in NYC alone, and it’s terrifying.

In light of Coronavirus, synagogues worldwide are closing themselves off to the public. But even amidst all this pandemic pandemonium, I cannot cancel my religion. There are weekly observances, rites, and rituals that don’t have to be put on hold. Many congregations and other Jewish organizations have gotten creative about preserving community online during this weird, scary time. Some have started livestreaming their services or offering virtual meetings. My temple, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, has been in the livestream game for years now, making non-Shabbat services (in Orthodox tradition, streaming isn’t permitted on Shabbat) available to those who would like to attend virtually or can’t attend in person.

This week, my rabbi acknowledged the importance of prioritizing “health and life over any ritual fulfillment.” It is essential right now to come together as a community despite restriction against physical contact. While my rabbi was devastated to cancel Shabbat services, he made sure to reach out to members in other ways. My grandma Bevie, for instance, received a phone call from a Shaar representative just today inquiring about her safety and offering to pick up groceries and other necessities.

My cousins, who belong to Reform congregation East End Temple in Gramercy, New York, love attending the temple’s Friday evening children’s service with their young daughter. In lieu of holding in-person services, East End has chosen to stream “Tot Shabbat” in conjunction with Tkiya, a Jewish community music initiative that uses a “participatory music experience to help people of all ages find their unique connection with Jewish culture and reinvigorate diverse Jewish communities.” Other East End services will be streamed via Facebook Live, allowing participants to share comments, making it an interactive prayer experience. In the wake of this international crisis, it’s compelling to think that we’re still developing new ways to explore the texts we’ve turned to for thousands of years. Creative approaches such as these are uniting us during these trying times.

Last week was the anniversary of my grandpa Arthur’s passing, and my mother could not attend services as our congregation was closed. She lit a yahrzeit candle and recited the Yizkor from her kitchen instead. Afterward, she baked his favorite cake (banana-yogurt) and made a donation to our synagogue in his honor. Like my mom, I was unable to attend services. So instead, I honored my grandpa’s greatest strengths—generosity and altruism—by carrying out as many mitzvahs as possible: I bought a homeless man coffee and made an online donation to my temple. We need to lean on small acts of tzedakah to keep ourselves sane and others safe.

In Judaism, we learn to cherish our ancestry and respect our elders from a young age, drawing from the phrase, “L’Dor VaDor” (from generation to generation). We are aware of the threat that Coronavirus poses to the health of our grandparents. Although physically visiting them may not be wise, nothing is stopping us from reaching out virtually. My 92-year-old grandma Bevie is the Empress of FaceTime. As a rare millennial technophobe, I barely know how to locate the FaceTime app, yet she knows her way around an iPad. Pick up the phone. Converse, kvetch, be a yenta.

I remember sitting on my grandpa Arthur’s lap at the Seder table as he shared his wisdom, “We Jews are flexible.” He continued on to say that as a community that has been forced to adapt under dire circumstances in the past: “Not only are we flexible, we pride ourselves on ingenuity.” You may not be able to wrap tefillin in shul, but you can wrap it in the comfort of your own home. You can also dig for relics in those dusty jewelry boxes atop your dressers: the watch your grandfather bought you for your Bar Mitzvah, that chai charm on a silver chain passed down to you from your mother and your mother’s mother and your mother’s mother’s mother, or that red string you picked up at the Western Wall. In a time when physical connection to other people isn’t possible, these items and our ability to congregate virtually will remind us of the power of perseverance.

The Torah is filled with rules and laws to abide by, but in light of this pandemic, the key is to find ways to still celebrate the things worth celebrating. To stick together and persist. It will only make us stronger.

Topics: Ritual
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How to cite this page

Greenberg, Jennifer. "Keeping the Faith While Social Distancing." 25 March 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 9, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/keeping-faith-while-social-distancing>.

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