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Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

Covid Finally Got Me: Some Notes from My Bunker

They say that people plan and God laughs. So God decided that the only way to celebrate another Covid-free new year was to afflict me with Covid, which is precisely what happened, on Sunday. Just this week, the W.H.O. director declared the end of the pandemic is ‘in sight.’ And the new vaccine booster, taking dead aim at Omicron variants, is just now arriving in Connecticut. Timing is everything, I suppose. Or as God would say, “Take THAT, scheming human.”

Thus far the symptoms are mild, thanks to Paxlovid, the vaccines and boosters. One might say that, rather than Covid finally catching me, I managed to catch it on my own terms, outrunning it until it was weakened and more controllable. It’s like having to face Willie Mays, but the Mays playing center field for the Mets in the World Series of 1973, not the one playing center against Cleveland in 1954; or having to battle George Forman, but only once he stopped grilling opponents and started grilling hamburgers. So, to this point, I feel fortunate. I’ll miss services and other events like Selichot, but I should be good to go for Rosh Hashanah, barring the dreaded Paxlovid rebound.

Please don’t get the impression that I am happy that this chase is over and it finally caught me, because I know that the chase is not really over. W.H.O. optimism notwithstanding, this Wile E Coyote of viruses will keep on looking for new ways to insinuate itself into our lives. We’re now better prepared to live in an endemic-pandemic world, but we are still at the very beginning of a long learning curve. We spend half our time closeted in bunkers and the other half in total – and I mean complete – denial. The good news is that the denial is no longer partisan, particularly in this election season. Discussing precautions and – God forbid – mandates among Covid-weary voters has become as popular as discussing math scores among Hasidic Jews. In America, no one from either party is even talking about Covid. It’s just not a winner, so all parties are partying like it’s 2019.

But that denial places responsible clergy in an especially precarious position. This variant, while seemingly diminished in destructive capacity, is still extremely contagious, more contagious than ever, and there are people who should not be playing Russian Roulette with it. We still know very little about long Covid and I still can’t taste my Cheerios, so if anyone is thinking that I’m now going to start wearing an “I Beat Covid” t-shirt to work, that’s not going to happen. I’ve got my other t-shirt on right now, since I can’t pet my dogs.

I will still advocate caution in much of what we do on the upcoming holidays – for instance, we will not have kissy-huggy Torah processions, even though I miss them more than anyone. I also will continue to really, really recommend masks indoors. And finally, you will not hear me trying to convince people to attend in person if they are remotely uncomfortable doing so. I love big crowds. I miss big crowds. But when I stand on the pulpit I will not neglect those who are watching from home.

I believe this pandemic has been extraordinarily destructive and corrosive for spiritual institutions and other living things. We’ve been so busy plowing forward – appropriately – that we’ve not yet stopped and looked back at the scorched earth Covid has left behind. Just the sheer number of people who have died. A million in America, over 6 million around the world.

Since when do we, the Jewish people, toss off the deaths of 6 million human beings by ripping off masks and declaring victory? There is nothing to compare to the cruelty of the Holocaust, but the sheer numbers of those families who have suffered from this lonely, isolating, dehumanizing plague rises to a total that is altogether too familiar. I know we’re exhausted, but I think we’ve been blasted by a combination of Covid brain fog and sensory overload at the sheer scope of what we have lost, how many we have lost and who we have lost. Six million may be a vast undercount. Since 2020, wherever there was death, the shadow of Covid has lurked, but people have been too embarrassed to admit it. The true impact of Covid has been a conspiracy of silence and denial. Covid has besmirched our civilization, and where in nobler times that might have brought the world together, here we can’t even get a third of America to take it seriously enough to mask up and vaccinate to protect the rest of us.

Think what the spring of 2020 did to us. Just the memory of those trucks filled with bodies outside the emergency rooms. Just the fear of touching a doorknob, and the reluctance to open one for a stranger. The anger at those who seemed so selfish or politically cynical. Those who got going when the going got tough, and left their spiritual communities. Those who raked in the PPP dough when they didn’t need it.For me now to pray that the sanctuary is NOT full, that everyone will sit apart and not sing – it is the complete antithesis of what my entire rabbinate has been about. It’s not about me – it never has been – but these three years have caused considerable and perhaps irreversible damage to our souls. We trust less, we laugh less, we care less, we dream weirder, we hope less, we love less and we die younger – and more are dying.Any good trends? There are some. Some interesting possibilities for synagogues, including the growing possibilities for virtual community. But with each idea we generate to finally get beyond this thing, God laughs a little bit more.I am hardly alone among clergy in expressing these frustrations, as 38 percent have strongly considered giving up the ministry. Actually, make that 42 percent.For clergy, there are two truths that are self evident:

  • One is that it is impossible to properly do our job in a mask. So much of what we are about is forging the kind of connection that can only happen when you see the face, the contours of a smile, the furrowed, empathic brow, the cheek damp from tears. Even when you give up the holding of hands, at the very least you need to see the face, and to hear an unmuffled voice. Kids need to see that especially.
  • The second truth is that it is impossible to do our job properly these days without masking. We need to protect others by modeling caution and self-care, and we need to protect ourselves so we will be there to share the most sacred moments of others’ lives. A sick rabbi is a useless rabbi. I’m useless this week. I’m a spun dreidel, a windless shofar. Thankfully, a bar mitzvah scheduled for this Shabbat was recently postponed. Thank God there are no weddings. Because I’m useless.

Someone said that if I managed to catch Covid, anyone can because I’ve been so “careful.” It’s true that among local public leaders, I’ve been on the more cautious side. And I’ve taken hits for that. I’d love a quarter for each time I’ve been told, “But Temple X or Church Y or school Z is back in person!” even early on, when the science strongly suggested it was not a good idea. Those arguments never moved me. Not once. I was never going to let peer pressure overrule my better judgment. I did not want anyone dying on my watch.

But at times, when my job put me in positions that I felt were unreasonably risky, I’ve acquiesced out of a sense of duty, with little resistance. If someone is dying in the Covid section of the hospital and they allow you to visit, sometimes you just have to visit. So I would hardly say that I’ve been especially careful. Like all first responders, you gotta do what you gotta do. I’ve done funerals that filled our sanctuary, where, despite my entreaties, few were masked. I’ve attended shivas at private homes where I’ve felt the hosts made a mockery of safety measures. That made me angry because it forced me to put my loved ones at risk, but I said nothing. I’ve been doing in-person burials since the very beginning (and there were so many in those first months); I had to do them. Until I was vaccinated, these funerals scared me to death, even when only a few family members were allowed to be present. And people have routinely tested positive after shivas, funerals and weddings that I attended, often mask-less. I was hardly a model of self-protectiveness.

So Covid, you got me. But not in the way you think. You actually had me at hello. Way back in March 2020, I always understood what you were – I never underestimated the damage you could wreak. I “got” you. I do know that we will eventually dig out of this. There will be a future and it will be different. It already is. For one thing, last week I informed my congregation that I will become emeritus in two years. Then God laughed and gave me Covid.

You finally caught me, Covid, but you didn’t kill me yet. Come hell or high water, or God forbid even a Paxlovid rebound, I’ll be out there on Rosh Hashanah, out from my bunker, my Doestoevskian dungeon, ready to welcome the new year, and the promise of a new future. Mask and all. There will be a future. It begins next week.

A sweet 5783 to all.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as About.com's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Cobie, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: rabbi@tbe.org (203) 322-6901 x 307