So enthralled am I by the sheer volume and calibre of free online Jewish learning opportunities since the start of the pandemic, that I sometimes forget that the people who do the teaching do it as their livelihood, not as a hobby. Therein lies the problem.
We, the students, the partakers of all manner and sorts of online classes and lectures during COVID, gobble up the learning as though it’s candy, or fine wine. We sit in front of our laptops, tablets and smartphones and act for all the world as though we deserve this high level of education. It should rain down upon us. We’re Jews. We’re the People of the Book. We’re entitled. Teach us!
Make no mistake: we are blessed to be the recipients of this stratospheric level of dedication, and we should not and cannot take it for granted.
But, sometimes, we forget.
We forget that the rabbi or rebbetzin or Jewish scholar or educator who is teaching us needs to feed their family and pay their bills. We forget that we need to support them just like they support us. Too often, we blithely go on learning from week to week, month to month, blissfully ignoring this reality. Yet, we expect a paycheque. Or a pension check, if we’re lucky. Why shouldn’t they?
Zoom classes have become as common as dust since the beginning of the pandemic. Every Jewish religious and/or spiritual organization I can think of is offering Zoom classes weekly, if not daily. They have filled the gaping holes that once were our thriving, healthy, “normal” lives. These same Jewish organizations recognize the desperate need for some kind of normalization, some sort of lifesaver for people to hang onto. In the absence of our daily routines of work, socializing and gathering together as a community, there is little left to celebrate, never mind sustain us. Local synagogues have leaped into the abyss to lift us all up, or those of us who needed lifting, anyway. They have rallied together to create curricula, offer Torah classes, general Jewish study courses, podcasts, livestream videos and so much more. Not only because it’s the source of their livelihood, but because they feel our desperate need, the soul’s yearning for Jewish learning.
There is enormous comfort in seeing others – even if only virtually – and knowing that we are studying Jewish topics together, learning as a community. The overwhelming isolation felt by so many people right now is beyond description. The personal losses, the devastating repercussions from COVID-19 can’t be counted. Our lives have been turned upside down in every way imaginable. And then some. But learning offers hope.
Sure, everyone copes differently with the pandemic, but anybody who says they haven’t been affected by it is just plain lying. Being the adaptable creatures that we are, we take comfort (or relief) where we can find it. For some, it’s food, or alcohol, or Netflix. For others, it’s learning. And, for others still, it must be Jewish learning. Something draws us – something draws me – to our heritage, our history, our Judaism. And, suddenly, we are home.
Myriad times, sitting in front of my computer during or after a Zoom class, usually given by a rabbi, I find myself weeping. Partly as a release from all the stress and anxiety I’m feeling right now; but mostly from a deep sense of gratitude. Gratitude that we, as a community of Jews, haven’t been forgotten. That, amid the detritus of COVID, our faith leaders have intuitively known that we need help, that we can’t do this on our own. So they step up to the plate, full of enthusiasm and inspiration, and they fill us up. Not only do the classes inform us and expand our brains, but they benefit us by keeping us moving forward in a meaningful, purposeful way.
So, why am I writing all this? To remind each and every one of us, myself included, that we should be menschen and pay the favour forward. Pay it, literally, to every rabbi and rebbetzin and Jewish scholar or other educator who shares not only their time, but their wisdom, to help us get through this pandemic in the most meaningful way they know how. Make a donation. Show you care. Make as many donations as you’re able. Big or small, the act is a sign of appreciation. A sign that we value the learning. A sign that we know little, and yearn to know more. A sign that we appreciate their caring, knowing that they will do anything in their power to help. And G-d knows we need it right now. So, whatever we do, we shouldn’t forget to support those who support us.
It would be the century’s grossest understatement to say that I’ve learned a lot during the pandemic. Sure, I’ve learned immeasurable things about human nature and caring and compassion. But I’ve also expanded my Jewish learning a hundred-fold, maybe a thousand-fold. The pandemic has given me the time. But those doing the teaching have given me the inspiration, the foundation, the thirst for more. Instead of being overcome with hopelessness, I’m filled with hope. I see a pattern to life, a way out of this. That is no small thing. We need to pay it forward. Or pay it back. Either one will do.
If there’s a global sense of helplessness pervading much of what we do these days, we can counteract that by not only feeling grateful, but showing it. It could be construed as crass to say that we should pay for our Zoom classes and livestream lectures and podcasts. So be it. Call me crass. It wouldn’t be the first time. Just get out that credit card and do the right thing.
Shelley Civkin is a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review. She’s currently a freelance writer and volunteer.