Lockdowns, and the price of democracy — and family

We agreed that we wouldn’t start to try and explain it to her until the next morning, but then she came into the room. “Why are you wearing that mask, Imma?” our daughter asked my wife. And so our best laid plans, such as they existed, were ‘out the door’. I made a snap decision.

“We are worried that Imma and your little brother might have coronavirus,” I said as I started my best effort to explain what was happening to her 4-and-a-half year old brain. “A family member of the person who runs his mishpachton (day care) has it. 

I thought of everything I learned from my years of working beside high-level hospital teaching physicians. They taught their young doctor students working with patients in terrible pain from diseases likely to kill them not to try and ‘sugar coat’ it. Rather, they should say things that emphasize that they will not be abandoned. “I am your doctor and I will treat your pain,” I remember one of these teachers instructing his charges to say.

“It’s scary,” I said to my little daughter with that doctor’s words on my mind. “But we know what to do.”

What to do. According to the public health instructions from the government, we don’t have to do anything. Not one of us has been exposed to a person who has been diagnosed with corona or shown any symptoms. We are ‘fine’ and don’t have to do anything unless the mishpachton person does turn out to have the virus.

But we have good reason to go ‘above and beyond’ the ‘letter of the law’ here. I am a person with ‘underlying conditions’ that make corona especially dangerous. Our daughter already had some understanding of this. “Special people have to stay inside and can’t pick me up” from her Gan daycare, she said. “I wish the germs weren’t still here, but the doctors aren’t done yet.” As she kept repeating things like that, I imagined it was her way of trying to process the shock of what we’d told her. I felt so much love for her, as I watched and listened. In that moment, at least, I felt no fear.

Do I feel fear now? The good news is that I wasn’t lying to her when I said we knew what to do. We had a plan in place in case something like this happened. As I write this, I am already in my own personal isolation room in our apartment. We are lucky enough to have a room with its own small bathroom. So, I’m okay with my little fridge and desk in here. But every once and a while I think about how I might already have been exposed and then I do know fear. People say it’s the ‘not knowing’ that is often the hardest thing about disease and its possible impacts. So we wait to hear more news from the  mishpachton.

Ironically, this is the first time I’ve heard of someone in our own personal orbit getting corona here in Israel. We live in a kind of smallish bubble of mostly English-speaking people who are privileged enough to be able to work from home or otherwise minimize their contact with the outside world. In my head over Shabbat, I imagined writing a different kind of piece today, one that emphasized the difference between ‘our’ Israel and other communities that have infection rates so high that the country as a whole now has among the highest daily infection rates in the world. The rates are especially high in the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) and Arab communities. For all their differences, those two communities have some things in common, especially in terms of their demographics with many large families living in crowded spaces and in the importance of communal life in their culture.

What they definitely don’t have in common, however, is the level of their influence on the political process. It’s next to impossible to form a Knesset coalition here without the participation of the Haredi parties. That’s why the coronavirus czar Ronnie Gamzu’s ‘traffic light’ plan was crushed before it could be implemented. That plan would have imposed lockdowns and similar measures on cities and neighborhoods that had high infection rates, but other neighborhoods, like the one I live in, could continue life and business in a more normal way. The Haredim saw red, especially after the controversy about limiting the annual Rosh HaShanah pilgrimage to Rav Nachman’s grave in Ukraine, and the plan was shelved. Instead, it looks like we’re all going to have to endure a two-week lockdown beginning with Rosh HaShanah.

You might imagine that I would be very upset about this, but I’m not so much. I think that this is the price of having democracy in this country that sits in a part of the world where there is very little of that. It’s really kind of a miracle that this country has one, and I think it’s a miracle worth preserving. It wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the fact that the refugees from European authoritarianism — and worse — who founded this country hadn’t been so deeply committed to it. I’m grateful for it. I don’t like having to put up with everything that Haredi political influence imposes on the rest of us, but I’m sympathetic to their anger about the traffic light plan and I agree that their voice has to be heard if we’re going to be able to continue to have democracy.

I’m sympathetic because I think I understand something of what a deep sacrifice the coronavirus restrictions, especially on gathering in groups for prayer, are for this community. The Haredim sacrifice so much so they can have the kind of intensely communal life they enjoy. They give up so many things, and choices, that the rest of us take for granted. They are willing to risk their lives for it.

I think that some American motorcycle enthusiasts — ‘bikers’ — might be a bit sympathetic  too. There’s been a lot of press lately about a study linking some 20% of the new U.S. corona cases in August to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally that drew some 460,000 people to South Dakota at the beginning of that month. Reacting to the study, a friend of mine described this as just “stupid behavior,” an irresponsible expression of an every-man-for-himself attitude.

But I think we’re missing something when we call the Sturgis riders — or the Haredim making pilgrimage to Ukraine, for that matter — ‘stupid’ or selfish. Because they’re never going to listen to us if we just keep condemning them. I seriously doubt whether a study like this will convince hardly a single Sturgis attendee that they shouldn’t have gone. Going to Sturgis really is like a pilgrimage for many of them. They spend all year planning for it, dreaming about it. For them, it represents a truer form of living, one more in accordance with their mostly closely held beliefs and values than the whole rest of the year.

So this Rosh HaShanah I’m willing to stay at home if it helps some of the Haredim also to stay at home, and protect their lives. And, for now at least, you’ll find me here in my little isolation room, hoping that we get good news from the  mishpachton  and that I am able to leave and hug my children again.

A new year of health, love and peace for all. Shannah Tova!

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.
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