Lessons Learned in a Pandemic

Like most Israelis, I am spending more time in my apartment than I planned on doing at this time of the year. As the weather is moderating I had hoped to take advantage of the Jerusalem spring to walk the streets and go about my regular activities. I had begun teaching and was enjoying my personal contact with my students as we delved into rabbinic texts together. I was a participant in classes and an academic seminar. These events were highlighting my week as I prepared for the classes, taught them and learned from others.

Then everything changed with the onset of the coronavirus. Thankfully, some of my activities moved to online platforms and while teaching a class is not the same online as it is in person, at least we could continue the learning process. Meetings that were scheduled followed the same pattern. True I could do them from the comfort of my study and not have to worry about riding public transportation or taking my car and being caught in the ever-present Jerusalem traffic, but I miss the real human contact. Online communities are just not the same as being with people in the same room and interacting with them.

And then there is the loss of my religious community. I was a participant in a daily morning minyan. I made it my practice to be at the synagogue each morning even during the heavy Jerusalem rainy season that we had this year. Shabbat called for being in communal prayer Friday night and twice on Saturday. The synagogues are closed, the minyanim are canceled, and I feel the vacuum that has been created. While there are some who are gravitating to virtual minyanim or other opportunities for prayer experiences I have not taken advantage of them. My prayer time has become personal and private rather than communal.

However, I must admit that this isolation has made me reflect on how lucky I really am. I feel fortunate to live in a comfortable apartment in Jerusalem with a picture window to the street below. I am even more fortunate to have a wonderful partner, my wife Bryna, with whom to share the “alone” time. As one who is not so technologically savvy and who has complained about technology taking over our world and serving not as the glue for community but as a deterrent to real community, I have realized that I was only partially correct. We have spent a great deal of time taking advantage of the wonders of modern technology to stay in touch with our family and friends around the world. To see our grandchildren in Israel and the United States in real time keeps us going; to be in touch with our siblings in three different countries on a regular basis has become a crucial part of our daily and weekly activities; to check in with friends, to see their faces and know they are well, is reassuring and uplifting. As one friend stated to me, we are not involved in social distancing but physical distancing. In fact, opportunities for social interaction has become an even more important part of our lives.

This period of time has also made me appreciate other things in life as well. I am grateful for the television, the radio and the computer which allow me to keep up to date on daily news events and to experience new learning opportunities and entertainment possibilities. I am appreciative of the fact that I can pick up a book from my shelf and sit down and read it, including some books that have sat there for years awaiting my attention. I am thankful that I can keep up my exercise routine and be a little more attentive to my body’s needs. Too often I have taken these gifts for granted.

Most of all this period has allowed me some time to reflect on my life. I have offered personal prayers for those who are currently ill with the virus or with other infirmities as I wish them good health and well-being. I have thought about those who are chronically ill or disabled who have to spend most, if not all their time, indoors without experiencing the freedom to move about and take advantage of the beauties of nature and the pleasures of good health. I have a new appreciation for those who had no choice but needed to isolate themselves so they could live – the thousands of Jews who hid themselves during the Holocaust for weeks, months or even years, sometimes helped by good and righteous people, and did not see the light of day or experience the presence of another human being. And I marvel at the strength and courage of the Prisoners of Conscience – the Refuseniks – many of whom were ostracized by their communities or sat in prison and in solitary confinement for no other reason than they wanted to immigrate to the State of Israel, a free choice I made nine months ago.

It will take some time but everyone admits Gam Ze Yaavor – this too shall pass. Hopefully we will find a vaccine, we will save those who are ill so they can return to good health, and we can get back to living the lives that we did before the onset of this pandemic. However, life will have changed for us all and will never be the same. Let us hope that those of us who have lived through this period of human history will never again take life for granted but will be grateful for each breath we take, each friend we make, each love we share, and each community to which we belong.

About the Author
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is Rabbi Emeritus of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park Illinois, an 1100 family congregation which he served for 31 years. He is past president of the international Rabbinical Assembly, MERCAZ USA and MERCAZ Olami, and a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish People Policy Institute. He is also past president of the American Zionist Movement and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. He is the author of Encountering Torah - Reflections on the Weekly Portion. He and his wife Bryna made Aliyah in June 2019.
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