Joseph C. Kaplan
Joseph C. Kaplan

Lessons to learn

Once I settled in after my first few months of retirement, I thought I had a general idea of how I’d spend my time. I’d get up a bit later — or even more than a bit (check), go to minyan more often (only semi-check, although the bar was low to begin with), take some Torah classes (check), listen to audiobooks while doing 10,000 daily steps (mostly check), visit my Toronto grandkids and their parents more frequently (check), write more regularly for the Standard (double check), travel (check), join a gym (check) and use it regularly (semi-check), and arrange periodic lunch dates with friends (check). I’d have my cataracts fixed (check), get hearing aids (check), and lose some weight (semi-check).

And then the pandemic struck.

Canada, with a border to cross and required quarantines, was out. Travel? We had to place our 50th wedding anniversary Jewish Heritage tour, which we almost signed up for last February, on hold, and we had no annual sojourns to the Glimmerglass Opera Company in Cooperstown or a few days of great theater in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the Berkshires.

Our gym went bankrupt though I continue walking, and minyan became a dim memory that is only beginning to emerge from the haze with my very recent (post-vaccination) attendance at indoor Shabbat morning services. No weekday lunch dates or lengthy Shabbat lunches with friends, and I’m getting up later and later.

But now hope is tangible as vaccination numbers ramp up every day, case numbers decline (though not enough — keep wearing masks outside and in crowds!), and the Rodda Center is bursting with people rolling up their sleeves rather than exercising their bodies. So perhaps it’s a good time to focus on several lessons we’ve learned, or should have learned, from this past most awful year.

(I know I’m only skimming the surface on ideas that would benefit from deeper analysis. For an example of a thoughtful in-depth analysis of lessons learned from a specific Jewish pandemic issue, see Mijal Bitton and Elana Stein Hain’s essay in The Lehrhaus, “The Mikveh Never Closed: What the Pandemic Has Taught Us About Mikveh.”)

Loneliness can be a truly serious issue. Many, of course, are aware of this and have always made an effort to ameliorate the hurt. But the pandemic has brought it to the fore in new ways. For me, it was last year’s sedarim. My wife, Sharon, and I were alone — just the two of us — for the first time, and our sedarim were lovely. Nonetheless, outweighing the warm feelings and novelty of enjoying just each other’s company, questions, and comments, was the painful knowledge that too many of our close family and friends were having solitary, depressing sedarim — if they were having any sedarim at all. The chasm between one participant and two is immeasurable. Luckily, all those we know who had solitary sedarim last year have been fully vaccinated, so there’s no need for any of them to be alone this year.

What I hope we’ve learned is to apply this heightened sensitivity going forward; that we understand even more than before that hachnasat orchim (hospitality) is not only for friends and family, but to welcome the lonely, bereft of company and companionship and for whom a large Shabbat or yom tov repast is not simply a fun meal but a gathering that may fill a hole in their lives. Kol dichfin yesey ve-yechol — let all who are hungry (and not just for food) join us — is a message that should extend far beyond the seder.

Let’s think carefully about how we celebrate and mourn. Celebrations and mourning were certainly very different in our community this past year. We therefore have an opportunity to rethink some of our practices. With one exception (see below), I don’t have any specific suggestions other than I don’t think we should jump to conclusions too quickly. Rather, before we say that the celebrations of 2020 should be the paradigm for future ones, let’s take a deep breath, try to separate the wheat from the chaff, and see what can be minimized and what should be retained. There are lessons to be learned; let’s make sure we absorb the right ones.

The one exception is Zoom (or any other type of online participation). We didn’t have Zoom at my daughter’s 2018 wedding though the technology was available. Of course we should have virtually included family and friends living in Israel or who couldn’t attend for other reasons, just as we appreciated being included as virtual guests at many celebrations this year. Let’s keep that inclusion going forward.

Similarly — and lehavdil — this applies to funerals as well. As a kohen I’ve felt ignored by my community for years, being sloughed off, sometimes in the rain or freezing temperatures, to frequently staticky, inaudible, or non-operational loudspeakers to listen to, and often miss, the proceedings. Others can’t attend for different reasons. The pandemic has taught us how to do this right. To the extent that technology has mitigated inability to attend, let’s always — always! — use it.

Community infrastructure is important. One positive element during this past year had been the eruption of online courses, lectures, shi’urim, movies, cooking and exercise classes, guided virtual tours of cultural institutions, and other educational and artistic programs. But they didn’t just appear miraculously. Rather, our community already had in place many organizations that worked tirelessly to provide these opportunities.

We often complain about the myriad of Jewish organizations and wonder if they’re all necessary. While that’s a fair question for another discussion, the pandemic has taught us that without them, our days and evenings — and our minds — would have been emptier and sadder. Since these organizations already existed, they were able, and had the wherewithal, to almost immediately step up to the plate and educate, edify, inform, instruct, and entertain, often at no cost to the participants.

For my family, such organizations include (there were, of course, many others) the adult education committee of my shul, Congregation Rinat Yisrael, which increased its programming exponentially, and whose audience and presenters expanded from local to international; the Beit Midrash of Teaneck, which continued most of its classes while thankfully opening up to the entire community and beyond (see “Equal and Not Separate”); YU with graduate school level offerings and Amit with Israeli and cultural ones; and the Sousa Mendes Foundation, which we had not previously heard of and whose programs Sharon particularly loves. And then there were, to name just a few more, Harvard Hillel, Brandeis, Hadar, the Temple Emanu-el Streiker Center (the amount of their free programming was simply overwhelming), and the Hartman Institute.

The programming did not, of course, always feel the same as live events. But it still had important meaning. Thus, although Sharon’s Shirah Community Chorus Zoom rehearsals were quite different than those of years past, she hung in for the chance to meet friends and learn new music, which she did successfully.

I also learned which teachers are special to me. I heard many wonderful presenters over the past months. For me, though, there were a few whose programs I’d register for no matter what else was on our schedule; educators like (honorifics omitted and this list is not exclusive) Erica Brown, Hayyim Angel, Stephen Whitfield, Shai Held, Rivkah Press Schwartz, Saul Berman, Elana Stein Hain, Jonathan Sarna, and Michael Avi Helfand. Our community is blessed to have them.

When something goes wrong in our children’s lives, we often tell them it was a learning experience. Indeed, experience often comes at a cost; Heine’s insight that “experience is a good school, but the fees are high” was especially true this past year. But since the world has sadly paid those fees in the guise of serious pain and death, we need to use wisely the lessons we’ve learned as we move forward to a hopefully brighter future.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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