Progressively Speaking: Coronavirus changed our communities, but we can rebuild
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Progressively Speaking: Coronavirus changed our communities, but we can rebuild

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild takes a topical issue and looks at a Progressive Jewish response.

Since Covid-19 appeared, our communities have been evolving ways of staying together spiritually even while forced physically apart.

The seder, usually a boisterous affair with extended family, became smaller and more intimate – even isolated. Maimonides’ ruling “One who is alone should ask themselves ‘why is this night different?’” came into focus.

Many of us were unexpectedly – unprecedentedly – alone. We needed to make this night and all other shared religious and communal events different in a new way.

Quickly we understood that physical distance did not have to mean social distance. Communities could reconfigure, meeting and living online.

Heschel wrote that Jews create sacred architecture in time rather than space, like Shabbat, when God is encountered in moments of time.

So, with modern technology, we created our new encounters with each other and with God. Conference platforms were downloaded, services were streamed and accessed on Shabbat. Rabbis and communities became technological mavens.

We set up shared candle-lighting on erev Shabbat and also Havdalah, each home with a small candlelit box onscreen with the smiling faces of our kehillah shining out.

We moved services and shiurim online, and others joined us from all over. More painfully, we attended funeral and shiva services. We could not hug, but we could “levayah” – accompany the dead and the mourners. We were there for each other.

Jewish communities have been innovative and resilient in the face of the pandemic. But there are only so many Zoom coffee mornings or online discussion groups or prayers, where the majority are muted to each other, that we can attend.

While the world opens up as we travel virtually, joining communities all over the world, the need grows for touch and shared presence. We can follow services and shiurim at all times, wearing pyjamas and with steaming mug in hand if we choose, but we lose out on the nuances of encounter, of place and community.

It’s impossible to know how our communities will look when the pandemic is gone. But we know they will be changed.

When Rabbi Yochanan left destroyed Jerusalem and set up Yavneh, the Jewish world reconfigured. This feels like a Yavneh moment too – building Jewish communities together.

Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in south London for 30 years

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