Modern Mishpocha: Fear, love and Judaism in the age of COVID-19

By Jenny T. Burns

I am a proud Jew. I’m so in love with my religion that I write articles the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin. I’m going to be brutally honest with you though. I am also a scared Jew. There are many examples of modern antisemitism in our world, and I do not enjoy feeling that I or my family are in the cross-hairs. I do not announce my religion everywhere I go. When my husband and I were merely dating, if he shared my religion with someone, later I would explain that I feel ‘outed’ in those moments. Even now, when one of my kids wants to bring a PJ Library book into the grocery store to stay occupied, I'm nervous about what strangers will say.

Am I right to be so nervous? Am I giving these fears to my kids, to my partner? Should I be learning to live without fear? What does my own tradition have to say on these matters? Where can I look for comfort and answers?

Well, as we rest in the seasons between Passover and Shavuot, the season of many ‘Yoms’ including Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and (this year) the season of social distancing and hypervigilant hygiene, my mind is abuzz with connections and, possibly some answers.

Unexpectedly, I find myself thinking of Anne Frank and others like her who stayed isolated and silent, and who were subject to being feared and portrayed as dirty or disease-carrying – scapegoated. I find myself thinking of cultures rooted in isolation and silence like certain practices of Buddhism or even Christianity. I also find myself sympathizing with the Egyptians that the book of Exodus describes as suffering numerous plagues. Did they want to run through the streets panicking? Did they fear for their children? Did they isolate? The Torah doesn’t say.

In fact, we don’t get a glimpse into the Torah’s worldview on illness and isolation until Vayikra/Leviticus when we are prescribed with weeks of isolation or quarantine as a cure for illness. Ironic and thought-provoking that we find ourselves in such a similar predicament. Even more thought-provoking to note that isolation in the Torah did not mean exile or banishment. Unlike the forced isolation of a ghetto or being in hiding, in no way were those separated from their communities ‘less’ or unloved.

In fact, I am constantly stunned by the amount of inclusion, love and community that Judaism prescribes. While, throughout history, we have been a people on the run, in hiding and in danger, in our own tradition, we are told not hide, not stop being a community and not to stop welcoming outsiders. At Passover, we are even uniquely commanded: “Welcome the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim.” When there is a literal pandemic, or plagues, or zealous antisemitism, and when we want nothing more than to keep that door (physically, literally and figuratively) shut tight and to push the world away, instead our tradition teaches us to open our doors wide (literally in the case of welcoming Elijah).

Take a moment with me. I want us to explore the meaningful mitzvah of welcoming the stranger. I, the scared Jew, love what this mitzvah teaches. I love the power of inclusivity, and I would argue that this commandment helps us push through fear. At past seders, I have had the pleasure of welcoming, Jewish families just moved to Ottawa, friends’ new partners, other Jews and also non-Jews, and even devout Christians. All of these people taught me what it is to give shelter and to be a good hostess. They taught me to keep working to overcome my fear of exposing aspects of my religion to judgment and scrutiny.

Yes, in this current health crisis, welcoming the stranger looks different. It is practiced through donations at the grocery store or buying gift cards for a local restaurant to help them stay afloat. It is possible, though.

So, please, dearest readers, please keep reaching out to one another. Keep including people in your lives and hearts. Reach out through Zoom, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Facebook chat, Twitch, and all other tech marvels. Please keep being hopeful and welcoming. What I have discovered on this journey of fear, Torah and chaggim (holidays), is that while we are being ‘watched’ and scrutinized, we are also the living examples of light to our neighbours, our friends, our family and the littlest, most impressionable mimics, our children. I, and hopefully you too, will show them that love and compassion do not stop because we are scared.