More accurately, I recall those occasions when I was old enough to appreciate the question as a recurring joke. After all, at that point of my life the signs along the way had become familiar: the Howard Johnson’s off the Merritt Parkway; the Charter Oak Bridge bypassing Hartford; the entrance to the Massachusetts Turnpike; the ramp onto Route 128. Even as a child, I knew how long was the trip, and what was the time of our estimated arrival. And I’d certainly recognize my grandparents’ driveway on West Roxbury Parkway to know we had arrived.
In the second month of the second year of the Israelites’ wandering, they do not yet know that they will be destined to wander forty years. I can imagine the children asking with each leg of the journey, “Are we there yet?” Even with the commandments as a guide, new rituals for drawing near to God, and the structure of a community that encamped as one, I imagine a lingering uncertainty that gnawed at even the most faithful. After all, so many of those commandments were given to be observed in the Promised Land; when would we get a chance to put them into practice?
In these days of confusion and uncertainty, I am reminded of that child in the backseat, before the question was posed for a laugh. Impatient, cooped up, unable to measure the passage of time, his anxiety is compounded by the fact that there seem to be no lanes on the road; that every driver is traveling at a speed of their own choosing, changing lanes at will; and that we are all supposedly heading towards the same destination with no one actually knowing its address.
As we approach the holiday of Shavuot and the celebration of receiving Torah, I appreciate more than ever the teaching of the Kli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz of Prague, 1550-1619), who offered that the Torah avoids explicitly naming Shavuot as the occasion of the Torah’s giving so that we may view every day as the day of revelation. Reflecting from the backseat of this journeying vessel, I question whether the destination does in fact lie somewhere ahead of us. What if this pandemic signifies a moment in time when we are asked to redefine the priorities of our lives, to reexamine the use of our resources, and to reconsider the distribution of our wealth? What if this is the moment of revelation to prepare us for future pandemics and crises that will confront humanity more than once each century? What if this is the time to which Torah speaks with more meaning and relevance than ever before?
Perhaps this is not a grim view of the future. Perhaps it is the opportunity to see Torah operate more fully in our lives. Perhaps it is our chance to shape a world of compassion and caution, of empathy and equality; a world that necessitates the constant navigation of risks and benefits, of conscious living; a world of respect for personal boundaries and concern for the boundaries set by others.
Perhaps we are already there.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
A skiff docked at the pier,
tied up, hawser with a splice anchoring bit to bollard,
battened down, unable to set sail,
rocking gently on the swells,
bow pointed into the sea.
Just there, in the bay,
in the turbulent winds of a hurricane,
tugboat, ferry, trawler and tall ship.
pitching, rolling, breaking apart, tossed and turned, capsizing.
I observe it all
I do not look away.
Under the same azure sky,
lit by the same sun,
in the same bay,
I am leeward and
they are in the storm. Rabbi Paula Mack Drill, May 12, 2020
My son Ben helped me write this poem, providing seaworthy language to complete the harbor metaphor. I have tried to describe the helpless feeling of being mandated to stay at home while right in our view, COVID-19 upturns and overturns and sinks lives.
I was content with my poem until I began to wonder about those who are not anchored, bit to bollard, at the dock. I thought about those who go out every day to essential jobs: grocery store cashiers, pizza makers, delivery women, postal workers, pharmacists, garbage collectors, construction supervisors. And I thought about the teachers working triple time from home to educate, support and soothe.
And then I thought about those who are going directly into the hurricane: certified nurse practitioners, home health aides, dietitians in residential facilities, orderlies, doctors, and nurses. My poem, it seems to me now, is only one piece of this connected and disconnected puzzle of humans during the pandemic.
Finally, I applied my harbor metaphor to our OJC community, thinking about those who go daily into the storm. We can be proud that among our OJC congregants are emergency room nurses, EMTs, pulmonary doctors, ICU physicians, pediatricians – front line heroes. They are facing down their fears, protecting themselves as best as they can, and some are getting sick as well.
And there are those who are working on the front lines in professions not mentioned so often in the news. In this post I will be describing four OJC heroes: a physical therapist, a funeral director, a family nurse practitioner, and a community care director. I do not use the word “hero” lightly. They are getting in their rescue crafts, leaving us at the pier and rushing out into the hurricane day after day.
For Loni Hersh, the best part of her career as a physical therapist has always been connecting with people, working with medically and emotionally challenged patients to overcome physical barriers and reach their highest potential. In the physical therapy department of a major New York hospital, her only frustration was wishing she had more time with every patient.
In the days since the pandemic began, however, everything Loni knows about her work has turned upside down. She now faces the most difficult medical situations of her career, working in the isolation and privacy of hospital rooms with very ill and lonely patients. Success on a Covid-19 unit is not measured by steps accomplished in hallways or climbing stairs but rather simply by moving from the bed to a chair. Loni flexes new skills when she works on a team of eight medical professionals who work to prone or supine patients, turning them from front to back or back to front every sixteen hours to receive optimal oxygen when they are intubated and sedated.
As loving and empathic as Loni is with patients, she knows she cannot substitute for family. She feels privileged to leave her home every day to do something productive and meaningful in this critical time. She knows that she is making a difference.
Gregg Brunwasser is a funeral director who is Manager of Hellman Memorial Chapels. All of Gregg‘s life, he has been drawn to helping people, from his days as an EMT and paramedic to becoming a funeral director. As he describes his calling, he works to make the worst day imaginable bearable.
Gregg uses all of his energy to ensure that Hellman is a dependable and compassionate chapel upon which families and clergy can depend. Many of us at OJC know Gregg as a caring presence whose priority is to help in any way possible. Gregg has traveled to elder congregants homes to help make arrangements, listens to every mourner with patience and care, and finds solutions to every kind of issue that arises. At the graveside, Gregg offers water in the summer and umbrellas in the rain.
Gregg’s focus on taking as much time as necessary for the care of individual families was turned on its head since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. The chapel, which typically facilitates thirty-five funerals in a month had to cope with 108 funerals in the month of April.
Gregg explained that Hellman has been able to maintain Jewish ritual from shmira to tahara. But every cemetery has different rules and sometimes the rules change by the day. The families Hellman has served through this time have not been able to receive the comfort of a completely traditional burial with family and friends surrounding them.
For Gregg, the level of sorrow felt by those who have lost loved ones has made this time particularly challenging and painful. His strength comes from working side-by-side with his wife Eva and the rest of his team at Hellman. Despite all of the limitations due to the pandemic, Gregg is certain that both the deceased and the mourners receive as much care and dignity as possible. This surety helps him get through these difficult weeks.
Leslie Cooper is a family nurse practitioner at the Cornerstone Primary Care Family Health Center at Jawonio. While the majority of Leslie’s patients are Jawonio and other group home consumers who have special or complex needs; because Cornerstone accepts all insurance or no insurance at all, Leslie takes care of the most vulnerable people in our community. What she values most about her work is the loving interactions she shares with her patients. This was true before the pandemic and it continues to be true despite the innumerable ways in which Covid-19 has overturned Leslie’s work and the lives of the people to whom she is dedicated.
Before COVID-19, the lack of equality in healthcare would keep her up at night, but she always managed to figure out a way around or through to get her clients the tests and appointments they needed. These days, it is the vulnerability of the community she cares for that is her main concern. Federally qualified health centers are reducing hours or closing because they do not bring in revenue.
The hardest days have been those when she was managing consulting phone calls from the group homes. Without much time to ponder possibilities, Leslie would give out an answer and receive the next question. With most of her work done via telehealth, Leslie has depended on her intuition and trust in the nurses and direct service providers who care for the group home residents. She finds herself juggling, prioritizing and getting enough data to decide if her clients are safe at home. Knowing Leslie, it is easy to imagine her giving calm advice to non-medical staff members and reassurances to families whose loved ones have chronic medical needs complicated by Covid-19.
While these tasks are all within her skill set, the number of people sick with the virus has been overwhelming. Leslie has seen group home employees and consumers get sick during the month of April, and many have died. She and her colleagues at the office have little time to grieve one loss before hearing about another. Throughout these painfully difficult weeks, Leslie feels pride in being a nurse. She gets up every day and goes to take care of “her people”. She says that she is privileged to do so.
Marcy Pressman is the Deputy Executive Director, Community Care, of NYC Health and Hospitals. That is a great big title for a great big job, which of course, Marcy would never mention unless I specifically asked. Managing the repercussions of a pandemic on hospitals is exactly what Marcy is trained to do. I think of her as standing at the center of the epicenter. While we are sheltering at home, Marcy is working seven days a week, up to thirteen hours a day.
Marcy is caring for the most vulnerable people – members of the immigrant community, elderly poor, and economically disadvantaged families. In the throes of disorganization and lack of preparedness at all levels, Marcy has found herself begging, borrowing, bargaining, doing anything necessary to acquire space, equipment and PPE required by professionals in the hospitals. She is managing hotels in Queens that she converted to isolation and quarantine spaces for Covid-19 patients who no longer require ICU or acute care, but can still infect others while they recover. The hotels are also used for monitoring newly diagnosed Covid-19 patients who are at risk of infecting others due to their inability to self-quarantine.
Marcy has a big picture view of the crisis and deep knowledge about what we must do to provide care and safety for all citizens. But the stories she most wanted to share were not about frustrations and policies, rather Marcy spoke about the individuals impacted by this virus: a recovered mom and her newborn baby with no home to return to, a new widower, very ill people without health care, homeless patients, and people without jobs. Marcy has lost colleagues to this virus. Every day she is on the floors, taking precautions, trying to fix and patch wherever she can. To Marcy, Covid-19 is not about numbers and statistics, it is about individual lives.
These OJC congregants are among the true heroes. I asked all four of them the same question: How do you feel about those of us sheltering at home while you go to work every day? I thought that they might find our complaints about the rain or lack of kosher chicken in the grocery annoying or even selfish. I was wrong. Each one of them said some version of the same answer: “Everyone must do what they must do.” “Sheltering at home is an act that saves lives.” “I am proud to do my work.” “It is a privilege to feel effective in this crisis.” It must be noted that all of them spoke about frustration with those who refuse to abide by the stay at home mandate or even protest against it. As Marcy Pressman said, “I am privileged to bear witness to heroes.” Like most of us, I am committed to staying at home for as long as it takes to protect the health care community and the life-saving work that they are doing.
And so, the vast majority of our OJC community are skiffs tied up at the pier, rocking gently in the waves as we shelter at home, feeling lonely, isolated, frustrated and worried. As we look out into the bay, watching helplessly as the storm rages, wishing we could help those who are struggling with illness and grief, let us be grateful for these rescue boats. They are rushing everyday into the storm with the strength and skill to keep afloat those with the deepest needs.
With prayers for all of our health and safety, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill