Somewhere between all and nothing

New City Jewish Center and the outdoor space we turned over to hakafot. (Courtesy of New City Jewish Center)

About midway through the first day of Rosh Hashanah services, I noticed some movement out of the corner of my left eye. It was a couple of people at our very socially distanced service; they were pointing across the sanctuary. Then I noticed movement out of the corner of my right eye, which turned out to be a small chipmunk scurrying down the aisle toward the front of the room.

The pocket-sized rodent ran across the front of the sanctuary, began his way up the steps to the ark, thought better of it, and turned. He then ran up the farthest aisle, and I presume out the back door, which in any year other than his bizarre, unprecedented one would have been shut tight for security reasons, but was open to create ventilation during the Year of Covid.

I don’t know what made the little guy pause. Maybe it just didn’t feel like yontif, given how few people — 65 tops — were in the seats. Never mind that more than 750 people were signed in and watching streaming online from their homes. Talk about unprecedented.

Maybe he felt that 5781 was getting off on the wrong foot.

Maybe he didn’t want to wear a mask.

Maybe he’d just had enough of 5780 and was glad to see it go.

I get it. A month of holidays with few of the trappings felt like a wagon missing one wheel. We wobbled along, but it was a struggle at times just to move forward.

Break-fast, which a group of family friends alternates hosting each year, didn’t happen. It was just me, my daughter and my husband, bagels and a coffee cake. There were no guests in our sukkah. The Sukkot hoshanot — the procession in shul where we circle the sanctuary, lulav and etrog in hand — was stretched out to accommodate social distancing; our plaintive chant of hoshanah — save us now — never more meaningful. The wild dancing of the hakafot at Simchat Torah? I’ll get to that later.

We were aiming for joy, and because the coronavirus kept so many worshippers away, we came up short. And yet, across Rockland County, we knew there was an ongoing struggle between the state and our charedi cousins, who have found it very difficult to bend their observance to meet government restrictions and to stanch the spread of the virus.

At New City Jewish Center there’s plexiglass around the bimah and we’re all wearing masks. It has been frustrating to travel a mere seven miles west to Monsey and find mask-wearing to be the exception rather than the rule. It’s uncomfortable and for reasons that don’t need expounding here, politically charged.

But it is also inconsiderate at best and reckless and harmful at worst. Right before Sukkot, the county’s infection rate hit 5 percent, compared to the overall rate of 1 percent for New York State. Gov. Andrew Cuomo clamped down on specific areas of Rockland, along with Orange County and parts of Brooklyn — all homes to large communities of strictly observant Jews — as the holiday approached.

There were red zones and yellow zones and limits on how many could attend what kinds of gathering. The outrage was palpable and partially understandable. Only days before Sukkot, the new regulations cut to the Orthodox Jew’s very way of life. It seemed like a slap in the face at a time when what we all wanted to do was celebrate.

But safety, first.

You think my rabbis are ecstatic about livestreaming services? I can tell you, they are not, even if more than 900 people tuned in for Shacharit on Yom Kippur. But in the depths of the pandemic and with utmost concern for their congregants, they felt it was a necessary change to protect an aging congregation most susceptible to the contagion. Even while we restrict the numbers of who can attend with an advance sign up, it seems that we rarely “fill” the shul. The fear of contracting the virus is simply all too real for too many.

But across the county, in Ramapo, which comprises most of the towns where Orthodox Jews live, nearly 40 percent of the population is under the age of 20. That’s the demographic least likely to get very ill from covid, so on one hand, maybe they just aren’t that concerned. On the other hand, it’s the demographic most likely to spread it. And towns have porous borders, ones that viruses don’t readily recognize.

No one is asking anyone to abandon their faith or their practice. We’re only being asked to alter them for the time being and for a greater good. During the Spanish Inquisition, when lives were on the line in a very different way, Jews went undercover. Many converted in name only to avoid discovery, and rewrote the entire way they practiced in order to survive.

And that was key, because cheating the persecutors was the aim. The long-term survival of Judaism was the goal.

I am not suggesting that the coronavirus should force a complete reinvention of Jewish life in the way that the Inquisition did. I’m just noting that when faced with deadly situations, Jews consistently have found ways to adapt — and to hold onto their faith and practice. There is always a place to settle between all and nothing.
And so there I was, on Erev Simchat Torah, standing inside of a six-foot by six-foot chalk-drawn square amidst a grid of squares that our assistant rabbi had laid out in the parking lot prior to the holiday. During our outdoor hakafot, the seven cycles of dancing with the Torah, one Torah was perched in a chair, and each of us danced to the beat of our own drummer as we sang, wearing masks, of course.

Rabbi Daniel Graber acknowledged that this was weird and awkward and then gamely threw himself into the macarena to Oseh Shalom. It was weird. It was awkward. I could have done like the chipmunk and scurried out the back.

Instead, I did a small shot of Glenfiddich and followed suit, celebrating the Torah as we have for thousands of years.

The next morning, we finished reading the Torah, and then began once again with Bereshit — in the beginning. Corona virus notwithstanding.

About the Author
Marla Cohen is a freelance writer in Rockland County, New York.
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