While I wait to reunite with friends and family in Texas, I’m transforming my anger at their governor into positive energy and empathy
Once upon a time… in a faraway land… called Texas, leaders decided that they had had enough of this pandemic. Merchants dismantled the plexiglass shields preventing the spread of germs. Restaurants set their tables for dinner parties. People burned their masks.
I have been fuming about this fairy tale ever since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott removed the mask mandate in the state that I once called home. It has been more than a year since my children have seen their grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousin; and nearly two years since they have seen the bluebonnets that bloomed early after the death of my father, whose yahrzeit is Tuesday.
The removal of masks this week with only a small percentage of Texans vaccinated sets the stage for yet another potential outbreak and prolonged separation from my loved ones. Of course, with any luck, my family soon will be vaccinated to travel our direction — wearing masks. That’s unlikely to happen in time for Passover, when so many other families are preparing to break their long fasts from each other.
That metaphor brings me to the Kosher Palate, a popular kosher market in Dallas, Texas. Upon learning of the mask reprieve, the shop’s owners immediately informed their customers they could leave their masks at home and invited them to come on in. Every year before Passover, observant and non-observant customers flock to the Kosher Palate to stock up on haroset, kugel, and matzah ball soup. With the Passover holiday starting at the end of this month, the timing seemed perfect. But was it?
Enter Rabbi Ari Sunshine, a Dallas rabbi and a regular customer at Kosher Palate who loves food — especially Passover food. Seriously, he even opened his Yom Kippur sermon this past year talking about matzah. He picked up the phone and called the shop’s owners to share his concerns. Many members of his community and others might not feel safe inside the tiny store if masks were not required. The store’s owners might not get that shot in the arm they usually get from the Passover rush. He worried that the decision might even hurt their business.
“When you have a good relationship, you pick up the phone and talk about it,” Rabbi Sunshine told a reporter for JTA.
The rabbi also called the organizer of a Jewish event in Dallas where people plan to gather on Saturday for sushi and a mask burning – which at a Jewish event frankly makes the rabbi uncomfortable. Being from Texas, I understand the appeal of a bonfire. Still, it makes me uneasy too.
Each conversation was pleasant, even if it didn’t change minds, he said. By the time the rabbi called the grocery, the owners had already received enough backlash on social media to reverse their decision. Still, the fact that the rabbi picked up the phone to call the owner impressed me. It inspired me to pick up the phone and call Rabbi Sunshine for a little counseling and, shall we say, anger management.
He encouraged me not to get worked up about something that I can’t control. Instead redirect your energy, he said. Be a little more cautious. Be patient a little longer. Support businesses that make you and your family feel safe.
But here’s the thing. I don’t want any business to struggle. I especially want to support the entrepreneurs and small businesses that keep our communities running. Why do we have to leave masks at home? Why does it have to be an all or nothing proposition?
I look to Israel where, since February, Israelis have started to emerge, but really came out this week with the reopening of restaurants, event venues, and tourist attractions.
But Israel also has fully vaccinated 40 percent of its population, and more than half of Israelis have received at least one shot. Moreover, with a fourth lockdown possible and Passover around the corner, they are still required to wear masks both indoors and outdoors.
In contrast, Texas has fully vaccinated 11% of its population. Nearly 22% have received the first dose.
I asked the rabbi what emerging from the pandemic can teach us about the value of relationships. As we are all going through the same terrible situation together, he said, our world has become much smaller. Recognizing how closely tied we are to everyone around the world, we should be more open to seeing them, hearing them, recognizing where they are coming from, even when the approach is different from ours.
In other words, as we come out of our isolation, perhaps we should focus on reopening our relationships, which have taken a real beating from the pandemic and politics. I encourage people to pick up the phone more often, especially when there’s a rabbi on the other end – your own or anyone else’s.
I took a deep breath after my call with the rabbi. I phoned my mom next and I talked to my 3-year-old nephew on FaceTime for another dose of sunshine. We all could use some of that these days.
A version of this piece originally aired March 12 on People of the Pod, a podcast about global affairs through a Jewish lens by American Jewish Committee. In the same episode, the author interviewed U.S. Justice Department Nazi Hunter Eli Rosenbaum. Listen here.