This week we made the difficult decision to include Shabbat services in the list of synagogue events to be canceled. This decision made for a dismal empty feeling on Shabbat, as we sat in our apartment and ate and davened alone. It has been a rainy (even snowy) day here in Tokyo, which emptied the streets, and made the day lonelier than ever. This first “canceled” Shabbat, more than anything, brought home the potential danger of “social separation,” which is seen as one of the primary means utilized today to fight the coronavirus. As we fight the spread disease, we are encouraged to separate ourselves physically from other people, and therefore as a tragic by-product also increase the isolation and existential loneliness felt by many.
As we practice “Social distancing,” avoiding close contact with other people, we may help to prevent the spread of the virus. Still, unfortunately, we also may increase a sense of isolation, especially among the most vulnerable. Seniors and other shut-ins rely on visits to maintain contact, a sense of community, and relevance. Yet, as with many viruses, the coronavirus is especially deadly for older people. It is therefore understandable when senior centres go on lockdown, as here, especially “social distancing can be a lifesaver,” but it also has an add-on effect of increased isolation. Here in our community in Japan, the phone often seems to be a forgotten form of communication, replaced by texts and email. At a time of crisis and uncertainty, however, written words do not replace a smiling face or the comforting voice of a loved one. Platforms such as Skype and Facetimes can also, therefore, bring “socially distant” people together, including friends and family, allowing them to connect when face-to-face visits are inadvisable.
At a time when a community cannot gather together, we should demand radical responses. Sometimes it is necessary to stretch traditional norms so that people are do not feel abandoned and forgotten. One essential role of religion is to provide comfort and connection, especially at difficult times. It is, however, to easy to get trapped in the minutia, allowing us to cite legalism and strict readings of our religious law, which prevent us from acting. Can one listen to the Megillah over the web? Is it possible to recite Kaddish as part of a virtual minyan? It always seems most comfortable to say “no,” but what then of the people who are left behind? Is it better not to hear the Megillah, and miss out on an essential mitzvah of Purim? Is it better not to say Kaddish, paying respect to our loved ones? Our tradition teaches that legal authorities should make their decisions based on the realities of their time and place. At times like these, religions are most meaningful when we can find creative ways to remain authentic while reaching out to connect someone.
In times like this, the importance of a synagogue, whether virtual or terrestrial, becomes apparent. There are Jewish things that we do at home and many mitzvot that do not require a community. But Judaism is communitarian, and it is nearly impossible to Jewish alone on a desert island (no matter the number of synagogues built). Many of our traditions are difficult, if not impossible, to do alone. Synagogues are the places we can gather as a community to support each other in our Jewish journeys. They are also an essential piece, along with the home, schools, and youth movements, in creating strong Jews for the future. We are taught not to separate ourselves from the community. It is the “how to connect” that today becomes the challenge. At times of “social distance,” virtual synagogues still can be and need to be, places we can gather to explore and enhance our Jewish lives. One of the most important things, however, that happens in the synagogue is not part of the formalized rituals. Instead, it is the kiss or hug that accompanies “Shabbat Shalom.” The short (or long) conversations we have as we touch base are as crucial as the tefillot (prayers). At times of “social distance,” virtual synagogues still can be and need to be, places we can exchange Shabbat Shalom, paired with a “virtual” kiss or hug, and to spend time touching base.
It was this feeling of connection last night, as we celebrated Havdallah with our virtual synagogue community, that brought a joyous and connecting end to our previously lonely and empty feeling Shabbat. We were still physically alone, but virtually and spiritually, we were joined together as a community across a giant metropolis. Each family had their braided candle, spice box, and kiddush cup, but we were “virtually” in one room as we ended Shabbat. That’s not, however, to say that there were no hiccups. Communal singing threw off the not so perfect video connection, rendering it necessary to mute nearly everyone. We could, however, still see the hand motions as people younger and older sang David Melech Yisrael. Despite the hiccups, we knew that we were not alone. While the “virtual” community should never replace the intense connection created by a “physical” community, at a time of “social distancing,” it is a welcome antidote to isolation and loneliness.