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Are We There Yet?

05/12/2022 05:14:21 PM


When (if ever) does life go back to normal? What does normal even mean? For the last two years, waves of COVID-19 have swept over us, and we have now arrived at a place where different institutions, regions, and individuals make their own choices as to what is safe or worthwhile.  Jewish ethics demands that we consider the protection of life to be a highest priority, but also expects society to function in certain ways. When is it *right* to go back to life as usual?   On the flip side, there are aspects of pandemic practice that people have been slow to let go of, for a multiplicity of reasons. What does community look like in a transitional time, or even a “New Normal?” The life of our synagogue is just one snapshot of these dilemmas. Do we keep on streaming and zooming, or go back to the way it was before? What factors will motivate or deter people from returning to the types of engagement with the synagogue that they used to enjoy?

Last summer, I used some of my sabbatical time to take a stab at answering these questions with two teshuvot. One (read here) addressed the permissibility of counting a minyan entirely remotely.  The view most widely approved by my colleagues concluded that it was an appropriate measure for she’at hadehak- a time of pressing circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly qualified, but the majority view expressed in the paper also anticipated that when the pandemic receded, this approach would only be appropriate in the face of some other (perhaps more local) emergency or unusual circumstance.

My second paper, which was entitled, tongue in cheek “Are We There Yet? Pandemic’s End” was written to provide guidance for how to assess whether COVID-19 was indeed behind us. I suggested a number of possible criteria from within Jewish ethics. One was when the risk of COVID was no greater than other risks that we commonly accept (for example when the risk of death from COVID is no greater than the risk of death from auto accidents). Another was the principle of Dashu Bei Rabim- that an activity still risk, but it is a risk that society at large has decided to accept.

We are now in a strange point in time. Our region, and our Jewish community, are in the midst of a rapidly accelerating, surge in case numbers. It is certainly disruptive: the senior residence I was planning to visit on Friday has an outbreak, and several of the seniors who I was planning to visit are infected. Library minayn for this shabbat morning was canceled because a number of the leaders have COVID in their households. A year ago, these numbers would have led us to limit attendance, require masks, stop serving kiddush, and possibly just hide under the bed until it was over. But this year, everyone is conducting business as usual. We’ll be having services and kiddush as usual this shabbat and beyond. (Next Friday night, May 20th, we’ll be having services outdoors, but that’s mainly to take advantage of the brief gap between pollen season and “too hot to be outside” season).

The ”business as usual” approach has its justifications. It seems like we are about to satisfy at least one of the criteria that were set to return to normal practice. For individuals who are fully vaccinated, the currently circulating variants may be unpleasant, but are not likely to cause life-threatening illness.  Eighteen months ago, the claim that COVID was “just another flu” was a cruel insult to those who had lost loved ones. This year, some scientists are suggesting that for vaccinated individuals, the risk of death from the currently circulating COVID variants is indeed no greater than that from other communicable diseases. Whether or not that is actually true, society at large seems to be acting that way. The theory of Dashu Beih Rabbim  says that if people in general discount a particular risk, then it is acceptable to ignore it, certainly for a holy purpose.

Over the course of the spring, our congregational leadership, including our ritual committee, began thinking about the new normal.  When gathering a crowd meant a risk of death, there was no doubt that a minyan should be conducted over Zoom. When the majority of our community members are traveling and gathering, going to restaurants and theaters, (even if some individuals are, with good reason, exercising caution) is it still an “emergency” that requires a continued change to centuries of Jewish practice? 

In a post-pandemic world, there are some aspects of our pandemic practice that should remain in place. As a matter of inclusion, our congregation should always offer a stream of services and classes so that those who are home-bound are able to retain their connection. The ability to “zoom in” to our daily minyan enables the participation of those for whom distance and family circumstances would otherwise prevent daily communal prayer. 

And yet, there are some aspects of our pandemic practice that must now be reconsidered in our community. The sanctuary, particularly on shabbat, is meant to be a place of refuge from screens and audio interruptions. At some point, rather than having a screen and/or audio interruptions in the sanctuary, we will offer a one-way stream of our shabbat services, accessible to all without disrupting the feeling in the sanctuary.

The question of counting a minyan on-line is even more complex. We are a community with hundreds of adult members for whom attending an in-person service is lower risk than many other activities they engage in. In such circumstances, we can no longer assume that there is a state of emergency that justifies counting the folks on screen (though some have suggested that an on-line minyan is sufficient for mourner’s kaddish, if not for other aspects of the liturgy). In such circumstances, we would still offer a zoom option for our weekday minyan, so that those who truly cannot attend can still feel a sense of inclusion, but we would need  to rely on 10 Jews in the room to conduct a full service.

We were in the midst of discussing implementation of these changes for this month, but it seems imprudent to undo our pandemic practice just as an exponential wave of disruptive disease breaks over our community.  However, now is the time to do the hard work to ensure that we are ready when the emergency is, by every definition, over. How do we carry over some of what we have instituted, to serve those who cannot join in person, but return to an environment that feels like synagogue? I will continue to work with the ritual committee and other lay leaders to determine the right time to institute these changes, (perhaps as we enter 5783?). One feature of the pandemic that remains with us is unpredictability. God-forbid, a new variant that causes serious illness despite vaccination, would require us to change course. Also, these changes can't happen overnight, and without congregational support. We invite the participation of the members of our community in these important discussions.

The deepest questions are not in the realm of halakha and ethics, but rather in the realm of spirituality and community. How do we help people feel at home in spaces that they have not seen in two years? What makes it worthwhile to put on pants, hire a babysitter, or drive 20 minutes? What are the best ways for us to remove the loneliness and sense of being overwhelmed that have afflicted so many. The synagogue has always been a place of gathering and community. For some, it is again already. What do we need to do to make it so for all?

Sun, April 21 2024 13 Nisan 5784