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Jewish Gifts of COVID

Ellen writes:

The more things change, the more they will never be the same” -- Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr

A year and a half ago, our blog centred on connecting Jewishly when you are outside any Jewish community (https://www.jewjubox.com/post/wherever-you-go-connecting-when-you-re-isolated). Now, here we are, all without a physical Jewish community.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been reading, thinking, dreaming, hearing, watching, living, obsessing about what COVID-19 is wreaking and has wrought. As things ebb, there’s been more discussion about what changes may be permanent – from where we work, to what we wear, to how we greet each other.

Today I’d like to focus on some of the Jewish gifts I’ve received from COVID.

I’ll start by acknowledging that I’ve been both privileged and lucky through this plague. I was employed, so my days were busy. My extended family had at worst a brush or a scare with a virus. I own a house with a back yard, so isolation was easy. I’m in a committed relationship, so loneliness wasn’t an issue. I live in an area where keeping distance while walking outside is easy (if you avoid times and places where you would expect to see lots of people.

Rows of empty seats

Thanks to all those virtual technologies, my temple moved from a building into my home, and it’s been a blessing. Normally, I’m a Shabbat morning service and Torah Study girl, so that’s what I took advantage of most at home. Chatting before and after services, I’ve had lovely conversations with people I normally don’t interact with as much. The chat features allowed for side conversations without interrupting anyone. In Torah study, the rabbi has been able to lead Torah Study and control when he takes questions, so conversation flowed without unwanted interruptions. We were still able to have side conversations and ask questions through the chat, but the flow was not interrupted. I will be happy to be able to go to Services in person when it’s safe to do so, but I’ll certainly miss the virtual Torah Study sessions.

Table with white tablecloths and chairs; no people.
This year's Seder looked a little different.

This year’s Seder was also a gift. Normally, we siblings each lead a section, and invite others around the table to read sections, with a view to making sure everyone gets a part or two. This year, knowing that not everyone would have a Haggadah at their disposal, we met virtually in advance to divvy it so everyone who wanted one, had a part in leading. Instead of being leaders, we became co-ordinators. We scanned the relevant pages to each participatnt, with an invitation to replace or skip the non-essential readings. Everyone had a list of what they would need on their Seder table. The entire family was able to gather virtually. Even people who normally couldn’t – along with some of their friends. From the Toronto area, our Seder table extended as far south as Arizona, and as far west as Vancouver. It was one big, raucous and happy seder, spread over more than 10 households.

Array of pictures of people on a computer monitor a la Zoom.

Tikkun Leil Shavuot was truly something special this year. Our Temple normally hosts or co-hosts a study evening that goes into the wee hours – and I never go. I live far from my temple, and worry about driving home fatigued – not to mention, I usually have work the next day. This year, the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism and the Reform Rabbis of Canada hosted the Nationwide Canadian Reform Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Six rabbis taught for 45 minutes each, with live music interludes from the homes of 5 cantors in between. But I got to learn from rabbis I might not otherwise even meet, from right across the country. And sing with leaders I might not otherwise hear. Personally, I hope that this continues to be our community’s tradition long after COVID is a memory.

In the coming weeks, we plan to explore some of the questions that isolation brings to our Jewish lives.

There are people, and communities, who always live their Jewish lives in relative isolation. What’s that like? How does it work? What can we learn from them?

What does it mean to be a member of a shul when there’s no physical building? What does it mean for the future of synagogue membership? And what does that mean for what Judaism will look like in the future?

In the meantime, what have been your Jewish gifts of COVID? How have you been managing your Jewish life? What worked well for you? What didn’t? Is there anything that you hope will continue once this time of isolation has passed?