Wednesday, April 8, 2020 -
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Community, despite social distancing

Eicha yashvah badad, Alas, she [Jerusalem] sits in solitude.” Thus opens the Scroll of Lamentations. It’s what I said to a friend of mine living in Jerusalem after I read the news of how shuttered and desolate the city sounds. “Shualim hilchu bah, foxes roam the city,” came the fast and bone-chilling reply, a phrase in a famous Talmudic dialogue that depicts the depth of desolate Jerusalem in the aftermath of the destruction of the ancient Holy Temple.

In Naomi Shemer’s famous anthem, “Jerusalem of Gold,” one of the striking lines is, “kikar ha-shuk reikah, the market square is empty.” These words also resonate all too hauntingly now.

I’m struck by the speed of how fast our reality and lives as we know them are changing.

Looking back on the first column I wrote about the coronavirus three weeks ago, I understand how innocently clueless I was. Normally, week to week, I never repeat the subject of a column.

But this is different.

Not only is coronavirus what’s consuming you and me, it’s what’s consuming the world.

The type of plague I read about that seemed relegated to the dust of history books is here.

Deserted streets and shuttered Jerusalem is what is coming to New York and probably the rest of America.

Unprecedented in my lifetime, this past Shabbat, my synagogue shuttered its doors.

That symbol — a locked and unavailable shul — was so painful. As King David writes in the Psalms, a synagogue is a bayit, a communal home. In this stage of my life, it’s not like I am the most consistent weekly shul attendee (I do pray, but often at home). Since this past Rosh Hashanah, I had consciously begun attending shul again. In recent years, though, my attendance had dropped off.

But the shul didn’t come and go.

It was always there.

Always dependable. An ecosystem and community that’s a pillar you just take for granted. At times, even a haven.

Even though I didn’t personally join the daily minyan, there’s a comfort and stability in the routine of it; in knowing it’s there.

Friday night, my community prayed in sync. Although we were separated, each ensconced in our own homes, instead of together in our brick and mortar house of prayer, we prayed at the usual time, bound by our connected prayers. It was a new experience: a hybrid of logistically private prayer, yet emotionally connected and united with each other.

Instead of going out to shul, in a sense we brought shul inside our very homes.

This is just one example of ritual Jewish life that has had to adapt to the new circumstances of living in the time of coronavirus.

One of the more endearing adaptations have been the videos from Jerusalem of weddings.

The wedding of the shtetl; simple chuppahs in the synagogue, courtyards or the family’s home.

I am seeing photos and videos of canopies held by four poles on random Jerusalem rooftops, balconies and courtyards. The quarantined guests make merry from their own apartment balconies, encircling the bride and groom in song and celebration.

In an instant, our modern day wedding parties of material excess have somehow endearingly and refreshingly been stripped down to their essence, shining a light on commitment, friendship, joy, love.

Community has always been an integral part of Jewish life. There is so much interdependence, so much give and take and connectivity. Embracing people is part and parcel of ritual Jewish life. Yet now, this new term “social distancing” is what’s to be our modus operandi.

Even for someone like me, who in this stage of my life flies under the radar, more on the periphery of community, these words “social distancing” are jarring. Psychologically, there’s a lot implied in that term. 

As time passes and we live those words into our imminent future, there will probably be a lot to unpack in the implications of those words.

Living in the mode of Eicha yashvah badad can be challenging. It’s the world of the leper.

Yet I am trying to balance preparation and responsible execution of the new guidelines with the refrain of “this too shall pass,” while I brace myself for another week’s developments as our world will no doubt narrow even more.

May we and all of our loved ones come through this safely.

Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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Shana R. Goldberg
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