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Finding Our Place in the Desert

05/21/2020 02:00:05 PM

May21

Recently, people have started asking me “When is B’nai Torah going to re-open?” My answer is “we can’t re-open…. because we never closed!” Our synagogue is not a building, it’s a community that sometimes uses one. In the past two months, we’ve had at least two services each day, multiple classes a week, support groups and social gatherings and more. We join to support the grieving, and to celebrate joys. Tonight, over 300 households are scheduled to attend a discussion on the Netflix series "Unorthodox." This weekend, we will be celebrating a Bat Mitzvah on Saturday, a Bar Mitzvah on Sunday, and welcoming the Konigsburgs' new arrival on Monday!

That’s not to underestimate the importance of physical proximity. Our Torah portion this week, Bamidbar, is a meditation on the values and risks of closeness. It devotes a whole chapter to where each tribe is to be positioned within the camp and as they journey. Stronger tribes are positioned to defend weaker tribes. Dan, small and last in line, has the responsibility of picking up any lost items the other tribes might have dropped. All the tribes surround the Levites and the tabernacle, drawing inspiration from closeness to religious guides and holy places. Proximity has its risks, though. At the end of the parashah, Moses is warned not to let the Levite family of Kehath get too close to the Tabernacle, lest they die by getting too close.

So, when will we be “back in the sanctuary?” The answer is that it will be a journey, not an immediate return to normal.  Some synagogues in Atlanta have already begun in-person services outdoors, limiting attendance. I have the utmost respect for my colleagues who have made that choice, but our COVID-19 task force has advised us to be more cautious for the time being. Many of the things that we love most about being physically together - singing, embracing, sharing food and drink, are the things that may entail the most risk. Already, several  houses of worship (though thank God, none in our own community) that began in-person services earlier May, even with recommended precautions, have had to shut down totally as they became the focus for outbreaks.

As individuals, we may have differences of opinion about the seriousness of COVID-19 or what precautions are necessary. I do not expect us to resolve those differences in how we live our personal lives, but in order to come together in-person, we will need to agree on shared expectations of prudent and respectful behavior when we are together.

With all that in mind, we are actively planning our next steps. We are looking at some different ways to bring together small groups of people at first, taking advantage of outdoor venues, the size of our building and different spaces within it, and best practices developed elsewhere. However, we want to make sure that we can do so safely and without making some people feel "left out" at times when attendance must be limited. Our pacing will depend on federal and state guidelines that continue to evolve, what we learn from the experience of other houses of worship, and the course of the disease’s containment or spread here in the Atlanta area. It is likely that some activities will come back in-person before others. It's even possible that we may start a particular format with the understanding that we may have to pause if conditions change.

We are also looking ahead to possible scenarios for the High Holidays. We will be engaging the members of the congregation in conversations about our priorities and opportunities that will inform our decisions about what we try to create.

 The book of Numbers describes how the Israelites organize themselves for a journey under challenging conditions, a journey that was far longer than anticipated and included quite a bit of complaining. The journey ahead may seem slow at times, but it does have a destination, and it requires the right physical togetherness, and distancing, to get there.

Thu, June 4 2020 12 Sivan 5780