Keep Your Distance

Last week I wrote about how the coronavirus has affected Jewish and synagogue life. Communities, including Adath, are avoiding handshakes, hugs, and ritual kissing that has become an integral part of our tradition. In just the span of a week, however, our response has accelerated. Programs, classes and other events are being cancelled outright.

As of now, at Adath, we will still hold regular religious services and religious school, although we are reconsidering holding other gatherings. I have cancelled my Haggadah in Depth class that was to begin tonight. For Judaism, in which community is so important, the social distancing we are experiencing is extremely difficult. How can we celebrate our faith when we are apart?

While at Adath we held our Purim Megillah reading as usual, attendance was light. Other communities streamed the reading online with the understanding that the obligation of hearing the reading of the Book of Esther could be fulfilled electronically.

The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement has put out Halakhic Guidance from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards about the coronavirus, including addressing the question of whether people can join a prayer minyan via the internet. The answer is that yes, one can participate in a livestreamed minyan and even say Kaddish as long as there are 10 adults physically in the room where the minyan takes place.

I have experienced communal crises as a rabbi in the past, but the coronavirus is different. When I was a rabbi in Northern New Jersey, my synagogue was damaged during Superstorm Sandy and many in my community (including me) lost power. The synagogue became a source of comfort as a gathering place. Unfortunately today, our building cannot be that physical place of refuge. Instead we will have to find other ways to support one another.

Social distancing is hard, but probably necessary as we try and stem the tide of the virus. A medical professional I was listening to on the radio expressed it well. He said to think of the healthcare system as a train with a capacity of, let’s say, 1,000 people. We know that 5,000 need to ride the train. If all 5,000 want to ride at once, the train will be overwhelmed and some will not make it, but if the 5,000 come in 500 person increments, the train can meet everyone’s needs.

The same with the coronavirus: thousands will surely get it, but if we can slow down the rate of infection through social distancing, hopefully our healthcare system will have the capacity to help everyone who needs it. I hope and pray that our communal response of staying away can save lives, the highest goal of Jewish tradition.

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