I held a Torah in my arms last Shabbat morning for the first time in more than sixteen months. We have, of course, prayed together in person and also via zoom during these pandemic days, but that morning was my first time leading Shacharit with an in-person minyan so that we could take the Torah from the ark.
As I turned to face our congregation and chant Shema, I realized with a sudden clarity that the weight of the Torah was exactly the weight of my almost 10-month-old grandson Carmel.
I have been carrying him every day for one month from mid-June through mid-July as I cared for him in Tel Aviv while his Momma and Abba worked. For thirty days, I lived every day from 7:30 a.m. until Carmel’s bedtime as Bubbe.
I arrived home to just one week ago in time for Shabbat, Tisha B’Av, plans for High Holidays in full swing, committee meetings scheduled and classes ready to begin. I have certainly returned to my life as Rabbi.
Am I living a double life? Is it possible to live as Bubbe and Rabbi simultaneously? I am determined to do so and have decided to purposefully weave the two lives together, carrying lessons from both identities across boundaries.
When I am Bubbe, I am mindful, patient, and joyful. I live to serve, to make my tiny charge as comfortable and content as possible. With Carmel, I could spend an hour making a tower of blocks that he would immediately knock down. Over and over and over. And I was delighted.
Breakfast was an hour-long affair that consisted of his aiming his spoon toward his mouth and connecting instead with an eyebrow, his neck, and his knee. Throwing the spoon to the floor, he would reach in with his whole fist to put oatmeal in his mouth, and also all over his chest. Every oatmeal party ended with him sitting in the kitchen sink so I could wash him down. And I was delighted.
Walking Carmel in his stroller in the sticky heat of Tel Aviv often required my capacity to distract and entertain. I refused to be embarrassed as I walked down Ben Gurion Boulevard singing Baby Shark, pushing the stroller with my right hand and making tiny sharks with my left.
What can this possibly have in common with my rabbinate? It seems clear to me that mindfulness, patience and joy as well as a refusal to be embarrassed are all excellent qualities for a rabbi to cultivate.
But what aspects of my rabbinate find their way into being Bubbe? I often davened parts of Shacharit as we played together in the morning. Carmel seems to enjoy Baruch She-amar and Ashrei as much as Itsy Bitsy Spider. Although he is not yet 10 months old, I like to think that he associates me with an appreciation for the wonders of God’s world, whether the orange blossom tree on Mapu Street in front of his apartment or the sun reflecting over the Kinneret when we went away for Shabbat. Every grandparent can bless their children and grandchildren on Friday nights, but I like to think that the gentle force of Bubbe who is also Rabbi brings Shabbat to the table each week. It is important for me to think of these things as I’ll become Bubbe to a second grandchild (expected by my son and daughter-in-law in Maryland) before the end of the year.
Can my two identities be woven together? Between Shabbat afternoon and Sunday afternoon, I participated in naming three baby girls, the newest members of our congregation. I was definitely in my role as Rabbi and yet also feeling 100% Bubbe.
I believe that I am not required to live a double life. I can take the best of each role and apply it to the other. I am passionate about both of my roles – Bubbe and Rabbi, and I can be both at once. A good thing since I plan on being both for a nice long time to come!
Wishing all of us many roles, many lives, all rolled into one great adventure, Rabbi Bubbe Paula Mack Drill
At the end of March 2020, in response to the spreading pandemic and the New York State prohibition against gathering in groups of ten or more, I issued an halachic (Jewish legal) ruling that permitted the OJC community to constitute a minyan (quorum of 10 for the purpose of prayer) via virtual participation, so long as ten people could see and hear each other. I was careful to add:
PLEASE NOTE: It is important to recognize that this ruling only applies under these extraordinary circumstances, and does not establish a precedent for minyan in times when we are free to congregate in groups of 10 once again.
We were not alone in following this legal leniency instituted for a sha’at d’chak, a time of extreme circumstances. And there was much discussion among Conservative rabbis at the time, as synagogues were transitioning to remote participation, about whether this bell could ever be unrung.
We have now reached the stage, by virtue of climbing vaccination and dropping infection rates, where restrictions have been lifted and people are gathering publicly in large numbers, both indoors and outdoors.
It is important to recognize that we, individually and communally, have been traumatized at some level by our experience of the pandemic, which still rages on in parts of the world and continues to produce variants and unanticipated effects. Though current science may tell us that our risk of infection once vaccinated is very low and our risk of serious illness even lower, some of us are simply not prepared to place ourselves in a crowd, especially indoors.
For some of us, there is also a certain level of inertia that has set in. The convenience of life coming to us through a screen, the elimination of our commuting time, the comfort of our loungewear—these things have all contributed to a welcomed slower pace to our days. It is difficult to ramp back up to life in the fast lane when our lives have felt more like a Sunday drive for the last sixteen months.
As a Jewish community whose mission is to care for the vulnerable and preserve life, we have moved deliberately and cautiously towards the resumption of in-person programs and services. As a Jewish community whose mission is also to gather people for the full experience of connection through ritual, prayer, study and celebration, we are anxious to provide all the programs and services we can. Our challenge as a community is to balance these competing values.
We must continue to be there for those people who are not ready to join us inside the walls of the synagogue. We will continue to offer our programming through a hybrid of in-person services and live stream along with the occasional outdoor service.
We must also strive to meet the needs of those who wish to gather in person, and continue to expand on our indoor programming so long as we can do so safely and comfortably.
This goal, however, requires a level of individual commitment that we have not yet expected or even requested as a community. If we are truly to be there for each other—and for those not ready to rejoin us—we must regard showing up as a commitment, an obligation to each other.
I recognize that we may not love the language of obligation, that perhaps in some way it undermines the purity of intention. But intention does not create community. A community for the purpose of prayer is only created when ten individuals commit to showing up. The call for our resumption of in-person services had been loud, but the response has been weak.
The halachic process requires that a rabbi consider the practice of their community, or “where the people are at.” Perhaps we should conclude from the unenthusiastic response to indoor, in-person services that we as a community are not yet prepared to commit to creating physical community. Honestly, I can live with that. I am prepared to view the summer as a transitional time, and to continue to count the daily evening minyan virtually; however, barring a resurgence of the pandemic, in the new year of 5782 I am hoping that we can institute a system where we will gather ten people every night in our building so that a proper quorum can be offered to those who are at home and to those who are present.
In this past week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, we read about the obligatory individual sacrifices the Israelites were told to offer at specific appointed times, in addition to their free-will (voluntary) and votive offerings. Are you among those comfortable gathering in person? If so, are you prepared to bring more than your “free-will offering” to your community, to make a commitment to the community that will enable us to serve others and to answer the demands of Jewish law?
Let me know who you are. Together, we will get there, eventually, with and for each other. Together, I believe we will unring that bell.
Rabbi Craig Scheff