Tamar Wyschogrod
Not working for the clampdown
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I volunteered to take minutes – 2020 had other plans

As we made agonizing, life and death decisions for our community, the synagogue Covid committee I chair discovered we were on our own
ILLUSTRATIVE: Sign outside a synagogue announcing cancelation of all activities due to the coronavirus outbreak. Babylon, New York, 1 April 1, 2020 (iStock)
ILLUSTRATIVE: Sign outside a synagogue announcing cancelation of all activities due to the coronavirus outbreak. Babylon, New York, 1 April 1, 2020 (iStock)

Of all the years, I had to pick 2020.

Late in 2019, in a moment of weakness (or was it strength?), I said yes when I was approached to serve on the board of the small Reconstructionist congregation my husband and I had joined just a couple of years earlier. I agreed to be secretary, taking minutes and making schedules.

But in a moment of insanity (or was it courage?), I said yes when, as New Jersey abruptly went into lockdown in the face of a rising pandemic, I was asked to chair the synagogue’s hurriedly formed Covid Committee.

It was not a decision I thought through very carefully. Someone needed to do it, and I figured that someone might as well be me. After all, I’m the kind of person who actually likes spending hours googling and reading up on things (often, instead of doing whatever I’m really supposed to be doing). And, though I am more a word-nerd type, I am at least medical-professional adjacent, being married to a doctor in a relevant specialty.

What I failed to realize at the time, though, was that putting myself into any kind of position of responsibility with regard to the coronavirus would mean that, rather than sitting on the sidelines feeling frustrated, confused, and angry about the American response to the pandemic, I would be having those feelings as a player – a teeny-tiny bit player, certainly, but a player nevertheless.

What I did not expect when I said yes back in March were the sleepless nights.

Although we are a small and quirky congregation, with what one might describe as an earthy quality (jeans and sneakers are more common at services than skirts and suits), we are like most others in the demographics that matter, health-wise. Our most involved congregants tend to skew older, which inevitably means a host of common preexisting conditions. When it comes to Covid-19, as a group, we’re high risk.

There was no question early on that we needed to shut everything down. Fortunately, we’re in New Jersey, where the burden of that decision was lifted from us by a state government that was sensibly responsive to the dangers we collectively faced. I can only imagine what my counterparts in other parts of the country, where misguided claims to individual freedom and constitutional rights commonly trumped science and common sense, must have faced.

As a Reconstructionist synagogue, we were spared the pressure of choosing between public health and the strict requirements of Orthodox Judaism, which prohibits the use of electronics on Shabbat (and therefore Zoom services). We didn’t have to dig deep into the halachic (religious legal) implications of pikuach nefesh (the principle that the preservation of human life overrides other religious rules) in a deadly pandemic. For us – at least, at the start – “Better safe than sorry” was a simple and effective guiding principle. But eventually, things would become more complicated as even cautious, Democratic New Jersey responded to economic pressures by relaxing restrictions. With lockdown easing, what should we do?

As Covid Committee chair, I spent a lot of time hunting online for guidelines that would provide clear instructions on when and how we could safely resume in-person gatherings. But what did “safely” even mean? For laypeople like me and my committee members, it was incredible that we were expected to figure out what constituted an acceptable level of risk, let alone determine what measures we had to take to achieve that level. It’s hard enough for the professionals, who actually know the epidemiology and understand the statistics.

Surely, I thought, someone out there more qualified than I to assess risk in a rapidly developing health crisis was hard at work crafting clear, specific guidelines for organizations like ours. Little did I know that I was doomed to disappointment, and that attempts by agencies like the CDC would be undermined by an administration in Washington more concerned with pandering to science deniers than with saving lives. At a time when the evidence pointed to the unwisdom of large indoor gatherings in houses of worship with communal singing, the Trump administration was pressuring the CDC not to recommend against it, because Trump’s evangelical base wouldn’t like it. The White House was determined not to let facts interfere with their political agenda, and our little synagogue, like so many other American businesses and institutions, was subjected to agonizing uncertainty and confusion created by the criminal lack of leadership and moral courage of the Trump administration.

In no time, we were knee-deep in questions, both practical and philosophical. What’s the rate of air exchange in our building’s ventilation system? How do you disinfect soft surfaces? Which is more dangerous, virus in droplets on surfaces or microscopic virus floating in the air? If a distance of 6 feet is safe, is 8 feet safer? How much safer? How do you calculate the capacity of a room for adequate social distancing? How much safer is it to gather outdoors than in? Just how risky is group singing? What about shofar blowing? If it’s unsafe for adults to gather, what about children? How do you weigh a child’s need for human contact against their risk of infection? What is our legal and ethical responsibility as a landlord to tenants who rent space in our building? Does the vital mental-health service of an Alcoholics Anonymous group outweigh our concerns for the safety of our maintenance staff?

And always, behind it all: How much risk is too much?

These are the questions that kept me up many nights this year, and they were certainly not what I expected to be dealing with when I said yes to the synagogue board. Because, let’s face it, if you screw up on most committees, what’s the worst that could happen? The newsletter doesn’t go out. The Purim spiel flops. There’s no Shabbat oneg. The roof still leaks.

But if you screw up on the Covid Committee, someone could get sick.

Someone could die.

And if there is one thing of which I am certain in all of this, I do not want that on my conscience. My job as a synagogue board member, and as a Jew, is to put the preservation of human life first.

So here we are. We’ve been extremely cautious. Since March, we’ve held no congregational activities inside our building. In the fall, we okay’ed weekly religious school outdoors on the parking lot, masked and socially distanced. But with the number of new cases and deaths climbing, in December, we axed even that, switching to virtual religious school for the remainder of the year.

Now that 2021 is nearly upon us, and Covid-19 vaccines are being rolled out, we face our biggest challenge: reopening. When will the risk be reduced to an acceptable level? What is an acceptable level, anyway? What precautions will we have to continue taking, and for how long? Should we require our religious school students to be vaccinated? What about adults? What do we have to do to make our building safer? How do we resume in-person activities but still make them available online for those who aren’t yet ready to come back?

Can I please, PLEASE, just get back to worrying about getting the newsletter out on time?

About the Author
Tamar Wyschogrod is a journalist, copy editor of New Jersey Monthly magazine, Hebrew tutor, and highly experienced domestic engineer.
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