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Erev Rosh Hashanah 5782: Déjà Vu? Lessons Learned?

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

Here we are again, attending our primary High Holy Day services online. A year ago, I would not have believed it if someone had said that 5782 would be a repeat of 5781. But it is. The Delta variant of COVID is making its way across our globe and nation, raising the previously low new infections rates, and infecting both vaccinated and unvaccinated. Yes, the unvaccinated are a much higher risk of getting infected and getting seriously ill than are the vaccinated, but this is the one variant that has “broken through.” For those of us who are immunosuppressed, immune-compromised, or have underlying health issues, being vaccinated may not offer the protection – or even the veil of protection – we desperately need or want.

We, of course, have not been alone in once again facing the decisions about the delivery of High Holy Day services this year: live, virtual, or a combination of both? All synagogues faced this question. As a Reform congregation, maybe we had it harder than others – we had to discuss and decide how to present this year’s services.

For my traditionally observant colleagues and friends, my heart goes out to them and their communities, knowing that the choice was made for them, and that they may be putting themselves and others at risk. I pray for those communities that their masks are strong, their distances from one another minimize the risks, their singing is sweet and soft, and the weather cooperates with their outdoor services.

Beyond these practicalities lie the emotional and spiritual challenges of facing another year of High Holy Day worship effected by COVID. Let’s face it: we are so done with this virus. It has disrupted our lives in far too many ways – weddings, b’nei mitzvah, funerals, unveilings, family visits, work, school, camp, vacations, other travel, and on and on and on. Never mind those of you who have suffered the death of a loved one from it.

At the same time, we know that we are resilient, even when we don’t feel it, even when another panic attack sets in, even when postponed visits to loved ones need to wait a few more months, and even when schools are requiring masks or not – but at least right now the kids will be in school. So, let’s focus on that resilience for a moment and recognize that we have learned much about ourselves during these past eighteen months – what I call COVID time.

Let me just say one other thing: I’m not suggesting that COVID was sent to us to teach us something – and I’m certainly not suggesting that God gave us COVID to learn a different way of living. That’s not even close to my theology. But I am asserting that no matter what we experience in life, COVID included, there are lessons to take away.

Many people have affirmatively stated that they are not going back to a pre-pandemic way of life. That life was frenetic, overbooked, lacking in meaningful time with family, and in other ways stressful and unpleasant. Instead, people are figuring out how to hold on to the many blessings they experienced during lockdown, quarantines, working from home, or leaving the work force. These blessings include:

  • Taking walks in the neighborhood
  • Zooming regularly with nonlocal family
  • Connecting with old friends on social media
  • Not having to travel to and from work, or for work
  • Baking challah and other kinds of bread
  • Learning or relearning a skill or hobby, like dancing or guitar playing
  • Doing puzzles, reading a new genre, or adopting a new pet
  • Falling in love or falling back in love
  • Being grateful for health, nature, family, and friends … as well as the pharmacy and grocery workers behind the masks
  • Breathing … and really seeing others

A group of Jewish education leaders[1] recently issued a report on COVID keepers: lessons learned this past year and a half from the world of Jewish education. Much of what they have to say applies well beyond the world of Jewish education.

First, community and connections matter. We all came to know this during the past 18 months. You were so generous with wanting to help and be present for others, even while the virus raged on. No one in our community went hungry. You donated money, groceries, and grocery store gift cards. You left meals for grieving families – or showed up because you knew you had to. You called one another, checking in on each other’s well-being. When we began our weekly Zoom worship, you came because you needed to give or receive a “Shabbat Shalom” while seeing other faces. You shared all for which you were grateful, and you prayed for those who were ill or in pain. You came onto Zoom early and stayed after the service ended.

You invited friends and family to join as well – we regularly had people at services from Texas, Indiana, Minnesota, Washington, DC, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and many other places. Your kids came week after to week to online religious school and to the end of the year gathering in Rollins Park. We know that providing outlets for kids has been key, and when they are given the sense of belonging, especially during a time of isolation, they develop empathy, resilience, and independence.

You attended online classes and lectures, and we are so grateful to the Adult Education and Social Action committees and our Sisterhood for keeping up these events. And when we opened our doors for Shabbat worship at the beginning of the summer, you came in numbers much higher than for typical summer services. We did and do need each other.

Second, creativity and flexibility are a must. The group of educators saw this with their colleagues, and I must praise the work of our religious school principal, Noreen Leibson, who demonstrated it each week. So did our teachers, madrichim(classroom aides), students, and parents. Sometimes, we changed curriculum midstream, especially with our older students who were fairly Zoomed out.

But the creativity and flexibility went beyond our religious school to all aspects of synagogue life. Not only are these our second High Holy Days online, but we’ve had two Zoom seders, celebrated confirmation online during Chanukah, and so much more.

And more importantly, creativity and flexibility went beyond how you experienced your TBJ community; I hope they now permeate your life.

You had to be creative about how and where you did your work, and about your work-rest of your life balance. Some of you learned to work from nearly anywhere. Others got rid of the time and stress that commuting bring with it. Still others learned how to work and care for children at the same time. We laughed when our coworkers’ children or pets interrupted or otherwise demanded attention during a Zoom meeting, knowing that they would laugh with us when it was our turn – and inevitably, it was our turn.

Creativity and flexibility were necessary if you were going to stay in touch with your family, other loved ones, and others important in your life. For the older and an often at-risk generation, especially, you learned how to use and even embrace Zoom. And less than the “how” we communicate is that we do. Remember point one about needing connection? You figured out weekly family Zoom get togethers, online therapy, virtual funerals, telehealth, remote classes, Zoom b’nei mitzvah, to say the least. We came together in crisis; I hope and pray that we stay together beyond.

As much as you need connection and community, you also need alone time, not the easiest to find when everyone is in the house, working and going to school. But you found it. Walks were helpful; they offered so much mental, physical, and emotional health benefits.

You listened to music, enjoyed podcasts, watched the seasons change, let your dog play with the neighborhood canines, noticed birds you had never seen before, admired homes around the block, read political signs from every stripe of life … in other words, you paid attention. And because of so much family time, you truly came to recognize the calm and serenity of some brief quiet moments.

A word to those of you who live alone. Those of you who consider yourselves to be introverts – many of you have told me that COVD time was fairly easy for you. And for those of you who are not introverts, many of you have told me that you were quite lonely. I only hope that the months ahead can restore the equilibrium and balance. “Everything in moderation,” taught the great Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides.

The third lesson is that we must see people in their entirety. As the group of educators noted, “engagement and learning experiences must always reflect and take care to address that people are multi-layered with all kinds of lived experiences and complexities. Even when a global pandemic subsides, anyone at any time can experience their own personal version of a pandemic – where they feel lonely, scared, or unsure. Any offering based in reality, reflecting a desire to positively influence people, will speak to this whole person.”  I cannot overstate how much pastoral counseling I did during COVID time and continue to do. People have been scared and angry and they still are. Past traumas are causing triggers and triggers are traumatizing. The cycle is vicious with far too few counselors available for therapeutic help. We must all pitch in and reach out to those who are suffering emotionally and spiritually.

This observation cannot be overstated, especially regarding teens. They were the most vulnerable through COVID time. Today, teen education, teen support, teen engagement, and anything else involving teens, must pay significant attention to teen mental health and wellness.

As we enter this new year, disappointed that we are gathering virtually and not in person, let’s remember a few key Jewish concepts:

  • P’kuach nefesh, saving a life – This is paramount.
  • Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all Israel is responsible for one another – How we gather has an impact on the entire community.
  • Zachor et asher asah l’cha amaleik, remember what Amalek did to you – Torah’s reminder[2] to protect the weak and vulnerable, as Amalek had attacked the Israelite stragglers during the wanderings in the wilderness.
  • L’ma-ala v’lamata, it’s up and down – We are all feeling the emotional roller coaster. Our hopes were high in June when the new infections were low and we seemed to be headed in the right direction. This is hard, really hard. It’s been 18 months since the lockdown in March of 2020. We never expected it to last this long or to feel like one step forward, two steps back. We must acknowledge this and continue to mourn our losses.
  • Gam zeh ya-avor, this too shall pass – Perhaps not as quickly as we had wanted, but in time we will resume worshipping together, unmasked, socially close, with onegs and kiddushes. I don’t know when, but a Jew must, must live with hope and the knowledge that better days are coming. That has been the key to our survival for thousands of years.

Shanah tovah. May 5782 bring us and our entire world, peace, wholeness, good health, and healing.


[1]Benjamin Berger, Paul Bernstein, David Bryfman, Jeremy Fingerman, Anna Hartman, Miriam Heller Stern, Susan Wachsstock

[2]Deuteronomy 25:17

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyar 5784