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5781: New parent, new year, new COVID emptiness

Last year at this time, I was pregnant and worried, so I pictured myself in shul with a baby (yes, it helped). Now, without shul, I find myself asking: Who am I now?
Illustrative. Baby's hand in hand. (via Shutterstock)
Illustrative. Baby's hand in hand. (via Shutterstock)

This is not how it was supposed to be.

Less than a week before Rosh HaShanah last year, I found out that I was pregnant again after a miscarriage. 5779 was be the year that I got pregnant for the first time and lost a pregnancy for the first time, and then, in the waning days of that year, got pregnant again.

As Rosh HaShanah 5780 approached, I hoped that this new pregnancy would last; I was nervous that it wouldn’t. The afternoon before Rosh HaShanah began last year, I went on a run that only lasted a few blocks before I tripped and fell, skinning both my knees. I walked home frustrated and worried. I wanted to get in one last long run before the new year. I was concerned that somehow, that teeny tiny 4-week-old bundle of cells growing inside me might now be damaged because I’d fallen.

Achat sha’alti me’eit HaShem, otah avakesh… One thing I ask of God, this is what I seek…Psalm 27:4

On the cusp of 5780 and in its early days, my prayer was to find my way through the darkness and grief of my miscarriage and find the faith to believe that this new pregnancy might grow safely within me.  In the haftarah reading on the first day of Rosh HaShanah, Hannah longs to become a parent and last year, I longed alongside her. On Simchat Torah, amidst the dancing and singing, a friend was sitting in a chair against the wall, nursing her infant.  She was one of a few people who knew that I had experienced a loss and that I was pregnant then. She pulled me over, as she nursed her daughter, and said, “Jill, this could be you next year.”

In the rare moments during the holidays when I did indeed believe that this pregnancy would endure, I had visions of bringing a baby to Rosh HaShanah meals and services. How would I juggle my yearning to pray with the need to care for a new life? I imagined the joy that I would have in seeing everyone admire this new person as we sat together in shul. And now, I imagined sitting on the sidelines at Simchat Torah, nursing a baby. Those images helped me hope in the dark moments of anxiety and fear that I had in the months ahead.

And now, thank God, I have a beautiful, healthy baby girl.

But the High Holidays this year will not be what I had imagined.

Achat sha’alti me’eit HaShem, otah avakesh…One thing I ask of God, this is what I seek… Psalm 27:4

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that in-person communal Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah would not happen. A year ago, no one could have imagined that COVID-19 would come and alter our lives this dramatically.

My daughter was welcomed into the Jewish people in a ceremony held via Zoom. No one has touched her other than my immediate family and her healthcare providers.

Last Simchat Torah, I danced and sang while holding a Sefer Torah. I read from it, as I have done regularly throughout the years.  It has now been over six months since I’ve seen or held a Torah. How old will my daughter be before she gets to come to shul? Before she sees a Torah?

I am mourning the loss of the collective “nora” in the Yamim Noraim this year — grieving that the awe in the Days of Awe will probably feel much harder to access when I’m davening (praying) from my machzor at home. There will be no harmonies to the melody of my prayers. There will be no physical space to go to welcome this new year of 5781 that is different than the space in which I live.

And yet, this will be a new year that fills me with awe unlike any before — the awe of new parenthood and the awe and gratitude for new life. Three and a half months into this, I am amazed at how much my daughter and I have both grown and changed. With every passing day, she gains a tiny yet significant new skill and I gain a bit more confidence in this crazy new role. I am filled with the awe that between this Rosh HaShanah and last, I sustained the growth of a healthy new life within me. I am awed by the responsibility of continuing to nurture this young life, from her birth several months ago into the future as far as I can see.

Achat sha’alti me’eit HaShem, otah avakesh, shivti b’veit HaShem kol y’mei chayai… One thing I ask of God, this is what I seek, to dwell in the house of God all the days of my life…Psalm 27:4

Rosh HaShanah, the new year of years, calls us to reflect on the passing of time. Who was I last year? Who am I now? Who do I hope to be next year?  Where was I last year? Where am I now? And where do I hope to be next year? Every single Rosh HaShanah that I can recall was spent in a synagogue. But not this year. Next year? I hope to be back in shul.

On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, physiological and safety needs make up the base of the pyramid. We are correctly prioritizing those needs over meeting our religious and spiritual needs, which lay higher on the pyramid.  And yet, food, shelter, clothing, housing, and security are not enough to sustain us. Our souls cry out, yearning for our needs to be met in those upper tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy. We need God. We need community. For many of us, community and God are deeply intertwined but COVID-19 forced us to pull them apart or at least render community virtual.

This will be my fifth significant Jewish holiday spent without face-to-face community (Purim, Pesach, Shavuot, and Tisha B’Av thus far). The quiet and the emptiness are palpable. The loss is unending even amidst some silver linings of new traditions and celebrations with pods or family. As a young child, I found God in the pews of majestic High Holiday services. Where is the majesty when we are not together? On Rosh HaShanah, we crown God as our sovereign ruler. But can we truly do that without raising our voices together in song?  Will there be majesty as we daven in our bedrooms or living rooms or backyards? I hope we’ll find glimmers of it, but it won’t be the same.

Achat sha’alti me’eit HaShem, otah avakesh, shivti b’veit HaShem kol y’mei chayai, lachazot b’noam HaShem u’lvaker b’heikhalo. One thing I ask of God, this is what I seek, to dwell in the house of God all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of God and worship in God’s Temple. Psalm 27: 4

I want to be back in shul. I want to be in God’s space, even though I know that God will be in my home too. I want to be in that uniquely holy space that we create together when hundreds of voices join in song and prayer. And at the same time, I need to make sure that my family and I stay healthy and that we do what we can to protect others as well. So we will stay home. But staying home will break my heart. And that one thing that I ask of God: to be back in God’s space with community next year.

Achat sha’alti me’eit HaShem, otah avakesh, shivti b’veit HaShem kol y’mei chayai, lachazot b’noam HaShem u’lvaker b’heikhalo. One thing I ask of God, this is what I seek, to dwell in the house of God all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of God and worship in God’s Temple. Psalm 27: 4

I’ve added these words to the melodies and liturgy of my daughter’s bedtime routine. She has never witnessed a minyan or a synagogue or even a service other than my own solo davening or our family’s Shabbat blessings. As we stand on the precipice of this new year, I grieve what we’re missing this year, and I pray that she, one day, be able to worship God in communal space. This is my prayer for all of us.

Shanah tovah u’metukah. May it be a good and sweet year, whenever we are, and wherever we aren’t.

About the Author
Jill Cozen-Harel is a rabbi who lives in San Francisco. Among other things, she has worked as a chaplain and educator.
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