Every phase of the coronavirus pandemic brings new challenges. At first it was trying to figure out how to go about our normal business safely (washing our hands frequently, no more handshakes or kissing the Torah); then it was deciding when and how to close institutions and businesses and work from home as much as possible. Now the world is struggling with how to reopen our lives and society safely.
This latest dilemma may be the most difficult of all. It is often easier to close down than to open up. Social distancing is incredibly difficult, but we know that it will prevent the spread of the disease. Opening up creates risk: how do we do it while making sure we reduce the chances of a resurgence in the virus?
Clearly, we will need to make major changes to the way we go about our lives until a virus is found. Israeli scientists recently published an op-ed in which they advocate for a 10-4 cycle: they would divide society into groups that would go to school and work for 4 consecutive days, “then, by the time they might become infectious, 10 days at home in lockdown.” It’s an intriguing idea and one that would create other challenges, but at least it’s an attempt at creating a plan that could free us from a complete shutdown of everything. It might even be a new way of life with some benefits – a healthier work/life balance.
Certainly face masks are going to be a feature of daily life going forward, with all of the challenges that presents, from fogged up glasses to difficulty breathing. Probably hardest thing about wearing a mask is the barriers it puts up to communication, and I don’t just mean that it is difficult to hear someone talking through a mask. On the radio I heard a black man describe the trouble he has now that his mouth is covered. He used to smile a lot to show that he was not a threat, but now that is impossible.
Recently, I was at a store and asked an employee for help finding something. He responded by using a lot of hand motions, which at first I thought was because we both were wearing masks, but then I realized that he was deaf. Perhaps in the past he read lips, but we still found a way to communicate. The experience made me think of how much more we will have to use hand motions to talk to people now. Rather than smile, we can give a thumbs up. At the same time, we will have to be even more aware of the tone of our voice and use it to help convey nuance to our words.
These are some of the things we need to think about as we begin planning for the reopening of our synagogues. In addition, we have to figure out a way to continue to use technology for our programs that allow for as much interaction as possible since even when we return to our sanctuary some vulnerable people will not be able to attend.
Towards that end we are forming a reopening committee to put in place a set of procedures to safely get us back into our physical space. We will follow national and local health guidance, as well as the advice and counsel of the United Synagogue and Rabbinical Assembly and coordinate with other local Jewish institutions. We also have a group that will work on a long term solution for livestreaming our services and programs in a way that is safe, adheres to Jewish law, and is as interactive as possible. There is a lot of work to do as we transition to the next phase of our new normal.