More than a month ago, a friend asked if I am journaling every day. She thought it would “really be something” to capture this unprecedented time and then look back at my words a year from now. She is certainly right. But it seems I cannot write; after five and a half weeks of stay-at-home, I have two entries, each no more than a paragraph, sentences drifting off in the middle.
I have planned to write this post for weeks now. Every day I write little pieces of it in my mind, but then, before I even begin, I decide that it has all been said already: The times are hard; look for the silver lining. We have great sorrow; still we try to be grateful. What else is there to say?
I realized today that what has actually kept me from writing is that I cannot comprehend the texture of this time. I simply cannot wrap my head around this time of languishment. (I remember feeling this way in college, reading Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. If you also read it, you understand.)
We Jews are so good at understanding time as a container, a useful vessel for emotion, striving, and cataloguing: Shabbat, 10 Days of Awe, Three Weeks, 49 days of Omer.
Yet it is hard to understand what is happening in this particular time. If there is indeed a time for everything under heaven, I do not think it includes this pandemic. Do we think there is nothing new under the sun? We must think again. We have never before known COVID-19.
The days slip by. I think Sunday is Monday. I go to bed early or very late. I wake in the middle of the night worrying about small details, my sleepy brain unable to go to my real concerns. I breathe deeply and smile and model optimism. Just under the surface of each day, however, is an existentialist anxiety. Beyond questions of when will it end and how will we cope lies the theological impossibility: What does it mean? Here we are, full stride in the midst of it, and we have absolutely no idea what it all means. Hence, anxiety.
We are taught to face anxiety with a good dose of gratitude. Gratitude, I can do. I am grateful for many gifts: walking in my neighborhood in the spring time,
practicing yoga virtually (I have finally been able to follow my own mantra: ‘Stay on my own mat’ – no one else to look at!), rediscovering the pleasures of my kitchen – inventing new recipes like carmelized pearl onions and cauliflower soup with red peppers. I made Sharon Rappaport‘s mother’s Passover popovers for the first time in years. (Thank you, Estelle, they are delicious!)
But I know that these months are not just an extended retreat from the world. No matter how content I might be during hours at home, no matter how I seek out reasons to be thankful, the entire world around me fills my heart and mind with sadness and concern.
I have completely good health. My kids are all safely at their homes, jobs intact, healthy and in good spirits. My in-laws are in their own homes, tucked away and safe.
But across my driveway, our beloved Millie is recovering from a fierce bout with the virus. She is a certified nurse aide at a geriatric center and had no choice but to go to work even when she didn’t feel completely well. No fever? Come to work. The Center is – like so many caregiving facilities – desperately short-staffed. Millie is an hourly worker who needs each paycheck. And she is a dedicated compassionate worker who now worries about the residents who are missing her special care and attention.
Across the airwaves, I speak with our congregants who are ill, worried about their family members, or grieving losses. I receive notices from the three synagogues to which I belong as well as from the Rabbinical Assembly. I wring my hands thinking about Rabbi Scheff officiating at four funerals within a 24 hour span of time (and today in this monsoon). I speak to our congregants who describe literally and metaphorically standing on the other side of a pane of glass, trying to connect to their loved ones… trying to connect to their own grief. In the mourners, we sense a shock that goes well beyond the usual experience of bereavement. This precious OJC community will have work to do when this is over. The work of healing and rebuilding will require as much courage as this work of sustaining community in the crisis.
Covid-19 has stolen so much from us. Children have lost the ability to play with friends, teens have lost their clubs and sports, young adults have lost graduations, wedding dates, promises of summer jobs. Adults have lost health, jobs, the ability to care for our vulnerable family members, holiday gatherings, structure, and a sense of security. We simply do not know how to understand this passage of time.
And so we will count the Omer and remember the lessons of counting up: That every day is a gift. That we count up to appreciate and remember. That Judaism and community offer us structure when the world is chaotic.
This year, it looks like we’ll be counting toward Shavuot and just keep on counting. When will it end and how will we cope? I do not know, but I know that it will end and we will cope.
What does it mean? We will not ever know. But we can learn something about what it means each day as we count the Omer. We can say thank you to God for the goodness in our life. We can reach out each day to someone who is suffering emotionally, spiritually or physically from this plague. When there is no meaning, Judaism teaches us to make meaning.
Stay safe and healthy in mind, body and soul, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
We heard about the shootings in Pittsburgh at our synagogue after services during kiddush. Not yet knowing details, and a bit in shock, we sang Shabbat songs with joy, belting out medieval poems to the tunes of the Bumblebee Tuna jingle and “Sloop John B.” That’s what we do when we gather to celebrate Shabbat: we pray, eat, laugh and sing.
On the way out of synagogue, our security guard filled us in a bit more. An Orangetown police car, he told us, would be staying at the synagogue all afternoon. It started to become more real.
After Havdalah, I turned on my phone and found a plethora of messages on Facebook from colleagues and friends, expressing a range of sorrow, outrage, and fear.
I reached out to a dear friend who lives in Squirrel Hill with support and concern. Though her family attends another synagogue, I know that everyone in that close-knit community knows each other. She appreciated my contacting her, and wrote back, “It could have been any synagogue anywhere in America.”
Over this past day, I have heard many versions of that sentiment. “They are my family members.” “I am connected to them all.” “What happens to one Jewish community happens to us all.”
What do Jewish people do with this overwhelming sense of connectedness? How do we respond to a tragedy when we live by the dictum:
כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה
All of Israel is responsible one for the other.
We seek to be together as a community. As one of my congregants said to me, “We need to claim our seats after something like this happens.”
And once we are together, what are we meant to do?
How do we cope with the feelings of sorrow and helplessness when confronted with senseless hatred? We look hatred in the face and we answer it with love.
How do we grieve?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “There are three ascending levels of mourning: with tears — that is the lowest. With silence — that is higher. And with a song — that is the highest.”
It was perhaps a coincidence, but I believe it was Providence… the OJC had planned our singing extravaganza, Kol OJC, the Voice of OJC, for this morning. Amichai Margolis, our Music Director, had been rehearsing with our band for a month. We had videography and sound engineering in place. 175 of us, of all ages, came together to learn a song in five parts in under an hour. We began with a moment of silence and dedicated our singing to the Pittsburgh Jewish community.
And once again, Providence played a hand in the songs that we sang: “Hineh mah tov,” How good and pleasant it is to sit, brothers and sisters together, and “V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha,” Love your neighbor as yourself. The messages could not have been more meaningful or more timely.
Koolulam, the amazing Israel project which inspired us to organize Kol OJC, gathers thousands of singers. But we had just as much excitement and energy in our sanctuary as Koolulam gathers in any stadium throughout Israel. (Watch for our video around Chanukah time!)
When we feel afraid, sorrowful, and devastated by events over which we have no control, we have a choice about how we will respond. We can despair or we can take action.Today, at the OJC, we powerfully experienced the way that taking spiritual action can lift up a community.
May we go from strength to strength. May the community of Tree of Life Ohr L’Simcha Synagogue feel our solidarity and support in the face of their devastating loss. May the Squirrel Hill community, and Jewish people everywhere discover reservoirs of strength and optimism. May we remember that we are God’s partners in repairing our world. May we never give in to despair.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
If you read the Orangetown Jewish Center emails, you have seen that we have experienced an inordinate amount of loss in our community in these weeks leading up to Pesach. Answering the needs of every loss in a community includes support for the immediate family, answering the questions of loving friends and acquaintances, advising regarding traditional practices and personal decisions, preparing for a funeral, coordinating shiva houses and minyanim, being present for the mourners in the days and weeks and months following the death. “This must be the hardest part of your job,” say loving, concerned congregants. They ask Rabbi Scheff and me how we cope.
There are two answers to the question. The first answer is that responding to the needs of a family at the time of loss is one of the holiest things that rabbis do. Families open the doors to their hearts and share their stories with us. They depend on us to answer some of the most important questions that humans can ask. And when we can be helpful, it is indeed sad but also uplifting.
The second answer is unique to our community. And the answer is: This community. Without the OJC community, we would not be able to help our families in the loving, respectful way that we do. Sometimes our president or Krista in the office are the first to know of a death. They respond as part of a team and find one of the rabbis immediately. The Ritual Committee delivers chairs and books, finds davenners, alerts Minyan Captains of the alternate sites for minyanim. In these past three weeks, we cannot thank Steve Richter and Jonathan Cohen enough for their responsible and caring attention to every detail. Sisterhood delivers some food for the condolence meal, Chesed finds out if there are any special needs for each family. And then all of you come out to the homes of fellow congregants. Some of you turn plans upside down in order to be there for another. I cannot remember making very many shiva calls without an OJC congregant coming to pay condolences at the same time. Tomorrow night, we will have four shiva homes in addition to the minyan here at the OJC. Some people are understandably hesitant about going to the home of a mourner they do not know. Not every mitzvah is easy. But the hard thing is almost always the right thing to do.You can be a part of the compassionate outreach of our synagogue by attending one of those minyanim. You might just be the tenth.
If you would like to know of a shiva house that would benefit from your attendance Sunday evening, please email one of your rabbis at Rabbi.Scheff@theojc.org or Rabbi.Drill@theojc.org.