Coronavirus Thoughts (1)

A Changed World

I was in New York on a short business trip a few days before Purim.  Early one morning, I received an unexpected call from my Shul chair to say that a group of scientists and medics in our community had advised that we cancel all forthcoming social events including Shabbat kiddushim and Purim parties.  We were slightly ahead of the curve, although in common with other communities across the globe, by a few days after Purim, we had held our final minyan. That was just five weeks ago, but it might as well have been five years ago.

Since then, the Coronavirus pandemic has changed every aspect of communal life, creating new norms none of could have imagined a short while ago.  It has also had an extraordinary impact on the life, role and expectations of rabbinic leaders, something compounded by the suddenness of the changes and the proximity of the lockdown to Pesach, even in an ordinary year the busiest season for most rabbis.

Sadly, the impact of the crisis has hit many families and communities in the harshest of ways, with a marked increase in the number of bereavements and those who are seriously ill.  To make matters worse, social-distancing requirements mean that funerals may only be attended by a handful of people, shiva gatherings are forbidden and it is not permitted to visit the sick.  These rules add multiple layers of distress and anxiety to what are already life’s most painful experiences.  My prayers are with all those affected and their loved ones at this exceedingly difficult time.  And my thoughts are with those colleagues for whom this period has been unusually stressful.  They have been called upon to conduct numerous funerals in short order, while simultaneously supporting multiple bereaved families.  They have all risen to the challenge admirably.  I don’t underestimate the emotional and physical toll on them and their families.

As with all crises, this one has sorted the heroes from the zeroes.  Across the community, religious and lay leaders have set aside their personal anxieties, stepping forward to take bold, thoughtful decisions, creating a sense of engagement, care and spirituality for their flocks.  I am awed at what many of my colleagues have achieved in a short time and I am filled with admiration at what my own lay-leadership has put in place to support our community, something that I know is replicated in many others.

I have spent much of the past few weeks supporting our rabbinic and lay teams as we reimagine our community online, devise new programming designed to reach the largest possible number and create enhanced welfare systems to support those isolated by the crisis.  It’s been one of the most intense periods I can recall, notwithstanding that I’ve barely left the house.  Yet it has also been a time of introspection, especially as Shabbat and Yom Tov have been so quiet and free from formal responsibilities.

Where these quiet moments have led me and their intersection with certain recent developments will be covered in my next post later this week.