This is by far the strangest time in my life. I’m sure that every generation has their unique challenge, and, like those before us who dealt with issues such as the Spanish flu, the Depression, and wars, we will pass through this time of chaos and make it through to the other side, but it sure isn’t happening too quickly, and it’s causing an enormous amount of anxiety.
As a staff member at Masconomet Regional Middle School, I feel lucky that my district chose to go back to school in a remote model. I think that we are going to see an uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases two weeks after school starts in other districts, and that this will inform the decisions about bringing kids back to school in October. I worry about the students, of course, but I really worry about my own health. I don’t want to die from COVID.
Helping kids to learn while we are only seeing them online presents all sorts of challenges. First, it’s hard to get to know a student when all you see is a little face on a screen, and that face is just one among many. You don’t get to see their body language or peek at their work while it’s still in process, both of which are indicators of struggling. Second, just learning the new technology that allows us to work with students online is really difficult. We need to build virtual classrooms, make lesson plans that work without being in person, add documents and videos, create assessment tools, worry about security and privacy, and adapt our lessons for many different types of learners. Third, we need to address the social and emotional aspects of students’ needs, including anxiety about COVID, kids not wanting to show their homes, and behavior and attention issues. We have students with terrible home lives, who don’t have internet, who have to babysit for younger siblings, and don’t have parents to help them. There are many other stumbling blocks, too, but the biggest challenge we have is addressing them all simultaneously. It’s brutal and it’s overwhelming.
Besides being an educator, I am also a vice president on the board of Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody, so I am up to my eyeballs in discussions about COVID-related issues such as when it will be safe and appropriate to bring people back together in person, how we will keep our current congregants engaged, how we can attract new members when we can’t even be in the building, how we can meet the emotional, religious, and spiritual needs of our members, and how we can stay afloat fiscally during a time of significant unemployment and financial uncertainty. There are myriad committees (e.g., re-opening, legal, religious school, worship, inclusion, adult education, social action, house, etc.), administrators, clergy, and technical helpers who are working tirelessly to try to keep everything working smoothly and effectively. Quite frankly, it’s exhausting.
Quarantining, working from home, and going to school online have stifled our ability to be with others physically, but they haven’t stifled our desire to connect with family, friends, coworkers, and those in our social groups. Hence, we’ve become quite creative, and that includes in our Jewish lives. We now “go to services” via streaming apps; our kids meet with their Hebrew school teachers and classmates via Zoom, and we eat holiday meals with family via Facetime. Katz’s Deli and Total Wine deliver. Some of us have braved driveway visits and socially distanced porch coffee dates, schlepping our own chairs, snacks, and drinks with us, all the while really wanting to reach out to our dear ones and hug or touch them. It’s hard to be disciplined, but Judaism exhorts us to find the strength to do so, and to keep our eyes on the prize: being back together and weathering this storm. We’re not saying, “Next year in Jerusalem,” but “Next year in person.” We’re not saying, “When the messiah comes,” but “When the vaccine comes.” Our goals have shifted to being short-term, but that’s okay temporarily. Like the Tree of Life, we can bend without breaking.
So how do Judaism and faith figure into life during a pandemic? (And let’s momentarily put aside all of the other layers of challenge we are facing at this same time: vicious partisanship in our nation’s politics, systemic racism and white supremacy, governmental fraud and corruption, climate change, inequalities in healthcare, etc.) I have two answers to that question.
The first answer is about faith and what I observe in some people, especially ones I see in the media: they use their faith as an explanation for what is going on. Some people believe that this pandemic is God’s will, that it is punishment for humans not behaving as they ought to. They think it is retribution for the “sins” of homosexuality, abortion, seeking asylum, or socialist philosophy. Others see this as a test for humanity; just as Abraham was tested by being asked to sacrifice Isaac, they think that they are being tested to see if they can stick to their religion when it’s a time of high stress. The staggering numbers of deaths don’t seem to figure into their views about science vs. religion, and their faith is not particularly being affected. I see some people who are not stressing about the pandemic at all and who feel that it is just what God wants right now. They are going with the flow, so to speak, and feel that if they are meant to be infected or die, so be it. To me, this is blind faith without meaning.
For the second answer, I can only really speak for myself when I say that I’m not looking to Judaism for answers about “why” when it comes to the pandemic. Instead, Judaism gives me a framework for dealing with it. We have been taught that we need to take in the stranger, be good to others, feed the hungry, take care of the earth, take care of our bodies, educate ourselves, honor commitments, make amends when we’ve wronged others, prioritize our own children, pursue justice, honor the Sabbath, and remember the commandments. All of these precepts are important during normal times, but are even more salient during a pandemic when both taking care of ourselves and considering others are paramount in responding to and defeating the coronavirus. My own faith speaks to me in terms of the tools we have been divinely given: the judgement we possess to make good decisions, the ability to learn and create, and the conscience we have to follow a moral compass.
So for me, life during a pandemic is not only just as Jewish, but probably even more so than during regular times because I have to consciously think about how I want to celebrate Shabbat, which Torah-themed emails I connect with, and what Jewish traditions I want to adapt to this home-based tethering we are all experiencing. As a temple leader, I (along with the whole board) have to look at every tiny aspect of temple life and try to find ways to translate them all to functioning in a coronavirus-affected world. My Judaism is more in the forefront of my mind now than it was pre-pandemic. Maybe that is the silver lining in this monstrous black cloud. I don’t know. What I do know is that I am grateful to have family, friends, and co-workers who understand me because they are just as anxious about the same things that concern me; that I’m grateful that my family is healthy; and that my Judaism supports me every day, even when there’s a world-wide pandemic going on.
Jodi Coburn is a member of the Board of Directors at Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody.