Jewish Resilience: Creating, Transforming & Connecting in a Time of Distance

In these last weeks, our Jewish community has been unexpectedly turned upside down by new restrictions caused by the spread of Covid-19. Rabbis, cantors, educators, and all Jewish professionals have been moving quickly to figure out responses to connect despite social distancing. As Jews, we know how to connect. We know that connection across distance matters. It’s at the core of who we are. Just as our ancestors gained strength knowing that there were other Jews around the world, so too does our connection across physical distance give us strength and nourish our resilience.

It’s been amazing to see how the new restrictions we’re suddenly living with have not been stumbling blocks; rather, our rabbis, cantors, educators, and all our leaders are rising to the challenge and showing incredible leadership. Holding online shivas that bring real comfort and connection, compassionately postponing bar and bat mitzvahs until it’s safer and finding inventive ways for students to shine nevertheless, holding Tot Shabbat and uplifting their favorite three-year-olds by singing into a screen from their couches, studying Torah together from everyone’s dining rooms tables.

This is a time for us to be as open as we can be to new possibilities, to go out on a limb, to teeter on the edge of the known and the unknown, to be nimble and flexible and creative. Not everything we’re doing is going to work or be successful. But out of that will come new ways of working and coming together that are going to transform who and what we are as a Jewish community.

In the midst of all this change and creativity, innovation and disruption, pain and loss and growth, I want to suggest a few basic principles that may help guide us in the days and weeks to come.

  1. Embrace change and accept mistakes.There are no rulebooks for the reality we’re suddenly living in. We’re not going to get it all right. But that’s okay. Here at CCAR, we tore down the infrastructure of a conference that had taken us two years to plan and built an entirely new one online in two weeks. Not everything went according to plan. But was pretty darn great nevertheless, and enabled our rabbis to connect and learn together in meaningful ways.
  2. Pace yourself. Change is exhausting. Working from home with your kids and other family members, also indefinitely home, is exhausting. Trying to get it right and meet everyone’s needs at a time of fear and worry while managing your own anxiety is exhausting. The uncertainty of this moment is exhausting. So give yourself a break, where and how you can. Ask for help, be strategic, create priorities. You’re going to need to pace yourself to get through this.
  3. Be forgiving. We have to be forgiving with ourselves, and with each other. Nerves are frayed. Skills are being learned as we race full steam ahead. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Be patient. Rest when you need to. And model this for others.
  4. Practice gratitude. We must find opportunities for gratitude in the midst of all this. How wonderful that technology enables us to create emotional, intellectual, or spiritual bridges across physical distances. How incredible that our Jewish communal leaders, lay and professional, are rising to the challenge, getting outside their comfort zones, and trying to meet communal needs in innovative ways. How marvelous that spring is coming, the days are getting longer, and the flowers are coming up.
  5. Be courageous. This is a time for courageous leadership. We must summon every bit of our stores of courage and have faith in ourselves as leaders. You can do this, even if you’ve never done this before. Your people need you to be brave. Find the right people to be your thinking partners, get input, listen to feedback, test new ideas, be willing to be wrong, and trust your ability to figure it out. But also, you don’t have to be brave all the time. It’s also okay to be scared, and feel vulnerable – acknowledging that takes real courage.
  6. Care for each other. This is a moment of tremendous fear and uncertainty. We don’t know how long this quarantine will last, and we don’t know what the long term effects will be. Surely there will be hardship for many of us, in the weeks, and over the months and possibly years to come. Some of us will live with the aftermath for a long time to come. Our personal lives and our professional lives will be profoundly impacted in ways we cannot yet imagine. In the midst of all of this, we need to take care of each other. This is not only a time of fear but also of loneliness. Who within our community can we reach out to? Who is emotionally vulnerable and needs some extra support? And then there is the actual virus itself. Some of us may get sick. Some of our family members may get sick. Some of us, God forbid, may lose members of our communities to or even family members. Let us be there for each other, let us be sources of support and caring in times of loneliness, fear, or grief.
  7. Find hope. And we must look for hope, and grab it with both hands wherever we find it. Our history teaches us that hope is always out there, even if we can’t immediately recognize it, and even in the worst of moments. No matter how bleak things look, we cannot, we must not, give in to despair. Finding hope is hard, but the search for hope is one of the things that can sustain us in dark times.

When the Pinelands in New Jersey experienced a devastating fire, scientists noticed something amazing. The heat of the fire melted the resin in the cones of the pine trees, causing them to burst open and spread their seeds, which enabled  the forest to regenerate. One of the scientists who studied this phenomenon said: “The system bounces back. Fire has been a part of that area for a long time. There you find species that have adapted to frequent fires; otherwise they get outcompeted by the species that can.”[1]  Throughout our history, that’s who we’ve been as Jews, time after time. We are resilient, we know how to adapt, and we have the capacity to seed new growth. We will figure this out, and together, from our living rooms, we will get through this difficult time.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/27/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/27mainnj.html?searchResultPosition=2

About the Author
Rabbi Hara Person is the chief executive for the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the publisher of CCAR Press.
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