By Michael Polowin, Chair, Jewish Federation of Ottawa
As we approach Pesach in the shadow of COVID-19, it is important to think about its impact, beyond the importance of physical health and mortality.
This column was written in mid-March, and fast-moving events between its writing and when you read it may affect its timeliness. In a week, I have had to rewrite this five times to account for events. Ontario has announced a state of emergency, closing non-essential business. Borders are closed. Canadians have been told to come home.
Shuls, schools and the Soloway Jewish Community Centre were ahead of the curve. The Jewish Federation of Ottawa, Jewish Family Services and other agency offices are closed, though the work goes on. Grocery stores are being overwhelmed, and events are cancelled. Seders will shrink this year.
This pandemic will have long-lasting and far reaching effects on how we live as individuals, and how we live as a community. Federation, on your behalf, is already beginning to think and plan for how we get through it, and how we live afterward.
An early action was a decision by the Federation Board to allocate monies from our reserve and other budgeted items to ensure that agencies that help our most vulnerable could be assisted through this time. As a community, this is the most important thing we do. We are working with our schools, shuls and other agencies to ensure that we are speaking in coordination, while recognizing that each organization must make its own decisions.
Community worship, education and information is making the transition to 21st century methods of communication. Where agencies and Federation can assist each other, we are doing so. Important meetings are following suit, all to allow prudent social distancing while preserving the essence of our community.
Shuls are doing worship online, to say Kaddish, and to learn. Schools are doing remote learning. Meetings are held by phone and video conference. Our community goes on, and copes as best it can. But it is true that for a time, social cohesion will be less than it was. We have organized a Facebook page, “Jewish Ottawa Helps,” a forum to allow people to help each other, and we were overwhelmed to see 600 people sign up in less than 24 hours and nearly 1,000 in a week.
As always, we can look to the Torah to find inspiration. In dealing with the problem of tzaraat (usually translated as leprosy, but the truth is uncertain) in Vayikra, we see rituals for the welcoming back of former sufferers, and on the reconnection of persons who had been isolated to the centre of community. The ritual is elaborate, and important, and ensures reintegration.
In using this example, I do not refer only to those diagnosed, but all of those feeling isolation from our community as we cope with this virus.
Social distancing is important to “flatten the curve,” but we must not allow it to flatten our community. We must continue to reach out to check on our most vulnerable, and on our friends and neighbours, if only electronically. We can knock on doors and make phone and video calls, while continuing to protect them, and ourselves.
For the moment, we may not be able to hold important community events, but we will again. And we will do so with joy in being able to shake hands, hug each other, and hold each other close. Until that time, rest assured that Federation is working hard to ensure that our community remains strong and vibrant.
From my family to yours, a Happy and most importantly, a Healthy Pesach.