By Rabbi Eytan Kenter, Kehillat Beth Israel
There is a famous curse, “May you live in interesting times,” and we surely live in interesting times. Our world has been turned on its head in innumerable ways and it does not appear to be returning to normal any time soon. In fact, in any number of ways, it is unlikely that our world will ever return to the exact same place it was six months ago. In some ways, this may be positive and in others, quite negative, but in all ways, the world will be remade.
When we look at this changing world, there is clearly a tension between the outstanding positive outcomes that have arisen along with the terrible cost. As we admire pictures of skies without pollution, we simultaneously acknowledge that the skies are cleaner due to a global pandemic that has killed close to 200,000 people. While we see the amazing work of communities and frontline workers to care for our communities, we also know that they are putting their own health at greater risk. While we see increased family time, there is also devastating unemployment, as well as isolation for those who live alone. It is reminiscent of the words of the prophet, Joel, who saw the arrival of the “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord.” A great and terrible time has arrived, how will we respond?
In a broader context, there have been pieces written about how the economy will change to be less dependent upon foreign products. The restaurant industry is in upheaval and small businesses are struggling to viable as we navigate our social isolation. It is likely that both of those industries will leave this period in our history different than they were before. The possibility for virtual communication and work spaces will grow as companies become accustomed to the changing reality.
The Jewish world is certainly also being remade as every day goes by. The types of services that people have grown accustomed to the Jewish world providing have altered greatly. Our JCCs are closed, our schools are being run virtually, and worship services have moved to the internet (when possible). The requirement of those most in need have increased as has the amount of people receiving support. The Canadian Jewish News has shuttered its doors as a result of COVID-19. Shivas and funerals are times of isolation rather than of communal support.
At the same time, Judaism has never been more accessible. I can watch classes being taught all over the world. I can invite my classmate in Australia to teach a class for our community as everyone will be on Zoom anyway. I can appreciate the differences in the performance of religious services because I can watch my colleagues all over the world. Someone out of town can join our Zoom Shiva services who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to personally express their condolences. We are no longer thousands of different Jewish communities. We are all one, navigating this unique time together.
There will come a time, and I don’t know when it will be (I learned from my father that rabbis are in sales, not management), when we are able to come together again, but Judaism will not be the same. It will have changed in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. The immense sensitivity that we have developed regarding the needs of those who cannot easily access Jewish life regularly will (hopefully) remain even into our future ingathering. We will be thoughtful about how technology can make Jewish life more available than it had been previously. The creativity that has been required will inspire new and creative understandings of Jewish law and Jewish life that will transcend this period of social isolation. And perhaps most importantly, we will realize that we are all one Jewish world and we all need to serve each other. All that we do will, hopefully, remain available for everyone regardless of finances or religious affiliation because that is how Judaism is meant to be practiced.
We are living in unprecedented times and are figuring out how to do our best to make it work. Remarkably, when this period of isolation comes to an end, it will also be an all new time and an all new society. How it will be shaped and how we will improve is up to us. I look forward to us all rising to the challenge.