We have now finished our second consecutive cycle of High Holidays under the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, unlike last, plenty of grandparents were able to hug their grandkids, thanks to vaccines. In-person gatherings were possible in different forms, including synagogue services.
The overarching crisis represented by the pandemic coincidentally occurs at a time when Jewish communal leaders are expressing growing concerns about declining levels of affiliation, especially among younger Jews. Polls (criticized by some for their methods) suggest a steep drop-off in support for Israel among American Jews. And there are worries, expressed by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, among others, of increasing estrangement between Israeli and Diaspora Jews.
Yet, there is almost not a single person involved in Jewish life who will not acknowledge some silver linings in this terrible time. It is human nature to almost instantly take for granted what we have. The sudden omnipresence of platforms like Zoom would have been a sci-fi dream 25 years ago. Educators, rabbis and Jewish organizations made an almost instantaneous shift to virtual events at the start of the pandemic. This, it turned out, served not only existing “audiences” (students, congregants, members) but entirely new faces. People who, due to geography, had no access to Hebrew classes
are studying virtually. British Columbians are scanning options and joining lectures, recitals, panel discussions and standup comedy routines, and more, streaming from New York, London, Cape Town and Tel Aviv. Services and programs generally offered to the Vancouver community are welcoming new attendees, unlimited by geography.
Early on, behavioural scientists predicted a phenomenon of being “Zoomed out.” But a Canadian opinion poll suggested just the opposite. We love Zoom. It allows us to attend a one-hour lecture without the 40-minute commute, the parking and the umbrella-shaking. Of course, it is not the same. We miss the kibitzing and other niceties of an in-person event, but it is pretty darn fantastic under the circumstances.
Jews produce a vast amount of what is now dryly called “content” … the written word, visual and performing arts, music, science, intellectual pursuits. And it is available in almost every language on the planet – to anyone with a device and access to the internet. The potential this holds to bring together Jews (or, of course, any people) in ways that were not previously imaginable opens entire new worlds of connection.
As we return incrementally to a life more like the before times, we should not cast off the necessities that became welcome additions. Rather than revert to in-person-only gatherings, many groups and events are already adopting hybrid approaches. Those who enjoy the in-person form can participate, but so can those far away or who are strapped for time.
If we now have moments to reflect on the lessons of the past year-and-a-half, we should consider the power of the technologies that have become so common. How can the unifying power of these tools be mobilized to address the problems of division we face as a community? Can a concerted effort to bring together Israelis and Diaspora Jews in remote dialogue help build bridges? Could a centralized schedule of Jewish educational and cultural offerings from around the world expose Jews everywhere to a wider range of opportunities to engage in ways that are meaningful to them? Could a renaissance of Jewish ideas and discussion spring forth thanks to the technology we have become used to during this troubled time?
Can Zoom save the Jews? Well, there are many challenges facing our communities in Israel, Canada and around the world. A simple fix is never going to resolve all the concerns about falling engagement, estrangement between parts of Am Yisrael or the host of issues that our communal leaders have been focused on for decades. But neither should we underestimate the powerful force for good that a simple tool like Zoom has to bring together people who might never otherwise meet.
As a tradition, Judaism has thrived by adapting, while holding fast to customs and ritual. Zoom is now a part of this mix. While it is not perfect – it is not suitable for all denominations to stream on Shabbat or holidays, for example – it holds the potential to continue to connect us even when we are no longer constrained by health restrictions from getting together in person.
At the dinner table, I asked my family what I should write. One of my kids, age 10, immediately said, “Climate change. People think the problem’s all hot air, but the problem’s really hot water.” There was a smirk at his joke, but his twin nodded in agreement.
Hurricane Ida’s just made landfall and is churning its way up through swaths of the United States as I write this. Haiti is in shambles from its most recent earthquake, only compounded by the storm that followed. In Manitoba, we’ve lived through a hot, smoky summer, surrounded by wildfires and besieged by drought. When it finally rained, there was so much of it that some places flooded.
The weather has, at times, felt apocalyptic. While I’m not superstitious, the recent uptick in truly awful weather and world events made me think back to Yom Kippur, 20 years ago.
In 2001, my husband and I sat in Yom Kippur services in Durham, N.C., where we lived at the time. Just a little over two weeks after Sept. 11, the terrorist acts in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon were on most people’s minds in that congregation.
Like many, I have images burned in my brain from that time, as both my family near D.C. and my husband’s in New York City, were alive, thank goodness, but personally affected. At synagogue, when we reached the prayer Unetaneh Tokef, the room fell silent, electrified. This ancient prayer, perhaps written by Yannai in the sixth century, is familiar to most who’ve attended services on the High Holidays or listened to Leonard Cohen:
“On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die after a long life and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer and Charity mitigate the severity of the Decree.”
In Temple Beth El in Durham, there was loud sobbing and then, the most elemental keening and grief that I’ve ever heard. Twenty years later, I can’t forget my brother-in-law running down Broadway as the second tower fell behind him, covered in its dust as he escaped Manhattan on the Staten Island ferry, or my father-in-law, who walked five miles through Manhattan in the middle of the street, only to stand in Central Park, afraid to go indoors. My father and brother, away from D.C. on business trips, waited days, unable to get home. My sister-in-law, stuck in D.C. overnight, was finally able to leave the city and walked home to her apartment in Virginia, only to suffer through continual sonic booms, as fighter pilots raced overhead, shaking her high-rise building.
I will never hear this prayer, which is primarily part of the Ashkenazi liturgy, without being shaken by that keening sound.
However, just as I remember it, it’s also helpful to keep reading. It says that, by doing repentance, prayer and charity, we can change the severity of the outcome. We’re taught clearly that repentance is not simply feeling badly about past behaviour, it’s about making amends. We must apologize to those we’ve wronged and try to fix our mistakes. Our prayers are not simply rote, but must come from our hearts, with the right kind of kavannah, or intention.
Finally, it mentions we must do tzedakah, which some translate as charity, but really also means righteousness. It is the obligation to do the upstanding, just thing, and to act with integrity.
Although I can’t help but think of this prayer in context of those who died, both on Sept. 11 and those who, each year, aren’t written in the Book of Life for the next year, it’s not just about that. This prayer says we must act now to make change and to stop bad things from happening to us.
Even for those who don’t believe in its literal power, the message is clear. If we want to be able to live with ourselves later, we’re taught that we must repair our relationships promptly, practise introspection through prayer, and make a big effort to step up and do the right thing.
Those who’ve lived through floods, wildfires, earthquakes and hurricanes this summer would argue that bad things are happening. The rest of us, living through the pandemic, would be hard-pressed to disagree. Yet, Jewish tradition teaches us that we aren’t passive observers. We aren’t meant to simply submit and accept this.
More than one rabbi has told the joke about the man on top of his roof in the middle of a flood. He ignores the orders to leave, turns down a neighbour’s offer of a ride, says no to the rescue boat and refuses to be saved by helicopter.
The floodwaters rise higher. He drowns. Then he gets to speak with G-d. He says, “Lord, I believed in you. Why didn’t you save me?” And G-d responds, “Well, I sent you an evacuation order, a carpool, a boat and a helicopter! What else do you want?”
While we battle a pandemic, forest fires, rising temperatures in ocean waters and on land, it’s helpful to remember that our tradition teaches us that “G-d helps those who help themselves.”
This is a strange year, where some of us, used to sitting in synagogue, will instead be streaming services at home again, or perhaps spending time praying outdoors. It could also be the year where we decide that, upon reflection, it’s important to repair our relationship with the earth and to start doing the right thing personally. Climate change is upon us. It’s going to take everyone’s efforts to make a difference.
Wishing you an easy fast. May you be written for good in the Book of Life.
Joanne Seiffhas written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
Every fall, we go apple picking. For my husband and me, it was one of our first dates, apple picking together in upstate New York. Over time, it has become a family outing, with each kid eating lots of fresh apples with the promise of applesauce and pie on the horizon. The timing is often perfect for the fall holidays, too.
This year, though, the pandemic has drastically increased unemployment. Many people are hungry. All around our (relatively well-off) neighbourhood, there are apple trees heavy with fruit. Here in Manitoba, frost is on the horizon. I have felt a huge pressure to put up food to share, and to pick more apples. This could be a long winter.
The first apple tree we helped pick was that of an elderly neighbour. She just lost her adult son, who was disabled. She was in mourning, terribly sad and frail looking, but also isolated by the pandemic. We all masked up immediately as she came out to greet us. Her smile was meaningful. Watching my kids cleaning up the fallen apples was important. She told us a visiting relative had made her pie. I got the sense she enjoyed that, as she is overwhelmed by the quantity of apples on the tree and the effort required to make anything from them for herself, these days.
A couple days later, I dropped off four 125-millilitre (four-ounce) canning jars of applesauce and a takeout container with two generous slices of apple pie. We canned pints of applesauce, made pie and apple chips for lunches. We still had way too many apples. We took a trip to the food bank and my husband donated 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of apples, more or less, at the self-serve donation bin. He also saw squash and other large amounts of produce from Winnipeg’s gardeners and I was relieved. It sounds like our mayor’s encouragement to citizens to grow more vegetables might have worked.
A couple weeks passed. We didn’t think we had more apple tree picking on our schedule as school approached. I continued studying Talmud as I had time. In Eruvin 29, there is a section that discusses what kinds of food should be given to the poor. The list is specific, including nuts, peaches, pomegranates and a citron. It stipulates that support for the poor should offer them dignity. In essence, poor people should have access to the same kinds of good foods as everyone else. Also, the food should be luxurious enough so that, if they were to sell it, it might be equivalent to two meals of something else. The food support should be dignified. It should offer poor people the same autonomy to choose, as anyone else might.
We received an email from another neighbour. Her apple tree had grown a lot of fruit this year. She still had a lot of apples left. Did we want to come?
We began to pick what looked like an untouched, heavily laden tree. It had so many low-hanging apples that my 9-year-old twins and I easily reached up to pick many with our hands. Again, we picked far more than we could use. The apples were so ripe though, that we had a lot of “drops.” These are the apples that fall when you jostle a branch even slightly – you just can’t catch them all.
We make the drops into applesauce or apple chips, but bruised apples have to be processed quickly. You don’t want to donate them to the food bank. I remembered this part of Eruvin, which reminds us that the best produce, not the bruised ones, should go to the hungry. Meanwhile, I tired of pleading with my boys to be careful, that they were wasting food. To them, it was just a bruised apple.
I tried to help them see it differently – to imagine it as the apple in a kid’s lunch. You’d be hungry without it. Days later, we are still processing bruised apples, but donated at least 100 more pounds of nice apples to the food bank. The tree’s owner asked us to come back again if we could manage it before the first frost.
At the end of Eruvin 29 and the beginning of the next page, Eruvin 30, there’s a reminder that we can’t allow the customary practices of the wealthy to be the ruling for everyone, including the poor. The way it’s explained is through the roasted meat that Persians eat (the wealthy are extravagant) and the fact that even a small scrap of fabric is valuable to the poor, so it matters if it should become impure or soiled.
During the pandemic, we’re all now wearing masks – small amounts of fabric that were previously considered waste. I made many kids’ masks from cotton shirting fabric I’d bought long ago, sold in small rectangles as discount samples. This experience is a reminder that is reinforced at this time of year – although we often live in a “land of plenty,” Yom Kippur helps us remember what it is to be hungry. Sukkot reminds us to value harvest. Scraps of fabric and apples make a difference. We can pick the apples before they fall, and offer others the same gorgeous produce that we take for granted.
In some ways, the Talmud seems ancient, but, thousands of years later, issues around disease, hunger and waste are still relevant. It’s great to have “roasted meat,” but even fabric scraps and bruised apples are important. It’s a Jewish thing to try to be grateful and value small things, even though we might have been tempted to waste them. We can use every fabric scrap and apple – and we should, because, as Rav Abaye notes, not everyone can afford lush roasted meat meals.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
We often use the High Holidays for self-reflection. Consider, we’re urged, the year that has passed and the future. For me, the pandemic and its uncertainty has made me less focused on the year to come. Instead, I’ve been taking a positive accounting of things I’ve experienced this year – and it’s actually quite a lot.
First, there’s been more time for our family to do Jewish learning and “attend” synagogue at home. It’s been easy to turn on Saturday morning services or a special lecture or a concert and expose the family to more Jewish content. The internet has made us feel welcome everywhere. This a huge leap ahead of what we often got out of “business as usual,” pre-pandemic.
Learning in general has changed. As someone who used to teach, I was wary of homeschooling. To be fair, I’ve met some very bright kids who’ve been homeschooled. I’ve also met some odd folks, so focused on their (often evangelical) religious views that it got in the way of making other connections. As but one example, once, I drove with my husband to visit a local farm that advertised sheep fleeces for sale. I’m a hand spinner, and we thought the drive would be fun. I met a large family living in a series of rundown buildings and trailers, wearing an interesting assortment of “traditional” clothing. These isolated, homeschooled evangelical kids led me into a trailer full of both wool and wasps, all eagerly telling me about their visions of the end-times. I left with some wool, but only because my husband and I couldn’t find any other way to politely extricate ourselves.
I’d been scared that, if I ever homeschooled my kids, it would become claustrophobic, bad for the kids and hard for me to catch a break. This was the case when remote schooling started in March. Getting the kids onto the online school meetings and keeping things afloat with a poor internet connection and somewhat spotty assignments from teachers was awful.
When school ended, we were relieved. I kept doing some learning with them each morning, though. Reading, math, cursive, Duolingo (online language learning for Hebrew), art, architecture and design, music and science/STEM learning have kept us busy, along with long walks, playing outside, swimming and more. Sure, I don’t have much alone time. Time for work (or even work to do!) has been limited, but that’s OK, in the circumstances.
Our kids are supposed to go back to school in person this fall, and we’ll see how long that lasts. I don’t dread homeschooling as much now. Setting our own agenda resulted in kids who may be more socially isolated, but they’ve learned a lot. They read better now in two languages, and their math has improved.
Disconnecting from the school-extracurricular activities-synagogue cycle hasn’t been bad either. Those demands came with a lot of pressure. The need to keep up, fit in, afford it and get there on time is stressful. It is easier to practise piano, play soccer in the yard or turn on the services via Zoom than to get to everything in person. Further, there’s no weird social interaction with other families about what we’re wearing, or just how hip we are. (We’re so not hip.)
Making things ourselves has been a mostly good, too – lots of cooking and other activities. Last fall, I started using my sewing machine, after years off. I took sewing lessons as a kid but never gained confidence. Pre-pandemic, I’d sewn myself a few things and remembered how to do this. Returning to it has been a great gift. I’ve figured out making masks, fixing and making clothing. Better still, because of the pandemic, I’ve been able to shop for supplies online and support small businesses selling sustainable or deadstock fabrics. I didn’t have time to go shopping for this stuff in person before the pandemic. Now, most everything is online. I can make plans for kid pajama pants, and dresses and pants for myself, in the future.
We’ve enjoyed some amazing concerts, held outdoors on our block. A talented musician/producer neighbour with a big front porch invites guests to come set up chairs and blankets, social distance and enjoy. Musicians perform for donations, and we all benefit. We’ve heard baroque, classical, flamenco, jazz, old-time and folk. If we sometimes can’t get outside as a family to hear it, the music floats up into our second-storey windows when the wind blows the right way.
Art has blossomed, not only in our family’s projects, but at the “little free art box,” which is run by an artist in the area. Much like a Little Free Library, one can open the box, take art or put art inside for others. We’ve shared kid watercolours and my handspun yarn, and received gorgeous charcoal sketches, pen and ink, and other delights. We’ve traded and celebrated the skills of others nearby. Our diverse community is rich with talent.
None of these small positive things can compensate for the many deaths and illnesses of COVID-19, nor the economic devastation to so many businesses and workers. The downsides this year have been huge. However, last night, I watched as my kids created a caravan on the blanket spread on the grass. We were listening to live music, as my mind leapt to the text I’d been learning from Daf Yomi (a page of Talmud a day). The rabbis are trying to explain how to make a temporary boundary around a caravan as one traveled and camped on Shabbat. They mentioned using saddles and camels, and debated how much space each person might need.
The blanket caravan consisted of several toy trains and hard plastic rhinos and elephants, lined up nose to tail in a circle. The tractate Eruvin is about boundaries – what boundaries make it safe to carry on Shabbat? In the time of coronavirus, I was transported to a different kind of caravan and boundary. Our families have “circled the wagons.” We’ve been forced to stay put and look inwards – but also to be outdoors. What value can be found in these new enforced boundaries? What positive things can come from those necessary restrictions? In our house, we can say that art, music, handmade creations and learning can be celebrated as we finish 5780 and begin 5781. It’s been a valuable time, even as illness, hardship, fear and sadness danced at the edges of every day’s newscast.
From my (socially distanced) house to yours – may we all have a happy and sweet new year, full of creation, positivity and, most importantly, good health.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.
I was introduced to the Sephardi and Mizrahi tradition of a Rosh Hashanah seder by a dear friend, at whose home I celebrate most of the Jewish holidays. This New Year’s, given the pandemic and that we are not in each other’s immediate bubble, I will join their seder on the first night of Rosh Hashanah either outdoors, weather permit, I was looking, perhaps, to prepare myself mentally for this year’s socially distanced gathering, and a Zoom with my family in Ontario, when I thought of the idea for the cover, which is created using watercolour and ink (and surprisingly little Photoshop).
In a Sephardi or Mizrahi seder, special dishes are served of specific foods whose Hebrew or Aramaic names are linked in a blessing to another word that has the same root letters. Puns flourish. So, for example, the Hebrew word for carrot and that for decree have different vowels but the same root letters – gimel, zayin and resh – and the blessing over the carrots translates as, “May it be your will, Lord our God, that that our bad decrees be torn up and our merits and blessings be proclaimed.” The word for leeks, chives or scallions – karti – is akin to yikartu, cut off, so the blessing over these vegetables is, “May it be Your will, God, that our enemies be cut off.”
Spinach or beet leaves also symbolize the hope that God will make our enemies retreat and we can “beat” a way to freedom. Dates carry the hope that hatred will end; the many seeds of a pomegranate that our mitzvot will be many; an apple that we will have a sweet year; string beans that our merits will increase; a pumpkin or gourd that God will “tear” away all evil edicts against us, while our merits are proclaimed. You get the idea.
One of the many names of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is Yom Harat Olam, the birthday of the world. It is the day on which our tradition says the world was created.
Before we can begin to celebrate this “birthday,” however, something is required of us. During the month prior to Rosh Hashanah, we prepare ourselves spiritually for forgiveness and, in the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we are meant to ask forgiveness of anyone we may have hurt during the year, even unintentionally. We are required to atone for wrongs between people, in contrast to the sins that arise between us and G-d. We cannot make a spiritual “return,” if we remain shackled with unresolved guilt and resentments.
More Jews attend synagogue on these two holidays than at any other time. Many of the prayers praise the mighty and wondrous works of the Creator, in keeping with the theme of “the birthday of the world.” We are to recognize that life itself is a Divine gift and has a sacred purpose.
According to our tradition, everything we do is recorded in the Book of Life. No deed, word, thought, good or evil, goes unrecorded. The record is supposedly kept in heaven. One belief accords this job to Elijah the prophet, keeper of the records of humanity’s deeds. On Rosh Hashanah, the Book of Life is examined, our acts in the preceding year weighed and judged. On this basis, it is decided “who shall live and who shall die … who shall be brought low and who shall be exalted.” For this reason, we wish for one another, “May you be inscribed for a good year.” We are taught that the only way to avert a severe decree is by “penitence, prayer and charity.”
According to Rabbi Kruspedai, in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah – one for the wholly righteous, one for the wholly wicked and one for most of us, those in between. The wholly righteous are inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life, the wicked in the Book of Death and the rest of us are held suspended until Yom Kippur, when we are judged worthy or unworthy. The zodiacal symbol for the Hebrew month of Tishrei is, fittingly, a balance – the scales of justice.
Many people accompany all meals at this time with apples and honey. In addition to its other symbolism, the apple represents the Shechinah (Divine Presence), which kabbalists refer to as an apple orchard.
With the emphasis on creation at this time, it is customary to eat an apple dipped in honey on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, after the blessing on the wine and bread, and say: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who created the fruit of the tree.” This is followed by: “May it be Your will, our G-d and G-d of our fathers, to renew unto us a good and sweet year.”
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we eat a new fruit – one we have not yet tasted this season – and we recite a blessing over it.
How do we know on what day of the year the world was created? We know that the first word of the Torah is Bereishit, in the beginning. When the letters are changed around, they read: aleph b’Tishri, the first of Tishrei, when G-d began to create the heaven and the earth.
May we all be inscribed for a good year.
Dvora Waysmanis a Jerusalem-based author. She has written 14 books, including The Pomegranate Pendant, which was made into a movie, and her latest novella, Searching for Sarah. She can be contacted at [email protected] or through her blog dvorawaysman.com.
Reboot’s annual 10Q annual reflection project, which sends participants a question a day for 10 days will return for the 13th year this month. But, with the challenges, grief and fear of COVID-19 weighing heavily on the world, this year’s 10Q will include additional questions to offer a space for exploring and preserving feelings and experiences of this unique time in a digital time capsule.
Each year, for 10 days, the 10Q project from the nonprofit Reboot captures daily insights, experiences and beliefs from tens of thousands of people, many of whom have been participating since 10Q’s founding in 2008 and have amassed a personal archive.
“It has been found again and again that, when difficult circumstances hit, the simple experience of taking a pen and paper and allowing our inner voice to speak through our pens is in itself a healing and regenerative act,” said Nicola Behrman, 10Q co-founder (in partnership with writer Ben Greenman and educator Amelia Klein). “We know from 13 years of answers just how meaningful the 10Q experience is for so many, but, this year, when the foundation of everyday life has shifted so seismically and we are desperately attempting to find meaning in the madness, this simple act of reflection is both anchoring and essential.”
For 10 days, starting Sept. 18, and coinciding with the traditional period of reflection during the High Holidays, participants of all backgrounds will get the 10Q questions by email, leading them to their private digital portal, where the answers will be stored. The annual 10Q questions are not intrinsically religious and are focused on life, personal goals, plans for the future, relationships, our place in the world and more.
The answers are returned to participants the next year before the project starts again. The 10Q vault serves as a digital time capsule, and answers to the new questions will serve as a chronicle of experiences through COVID-19 that can also be shared by participants with future generations. For some people, this is a one-time experience; for others, 10Q has created an annual tradition of building a personal archive for future years and mapping personal growth.
Although the project is rooted in the Jewish idea of ethical wills and runs during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in the last decade, more than 70,000 people of all backgrounds and ages have turned to 10Q for a meaningful and modern spin on the centuries-old tradition of introspection, atonement and self-change during the High Holidays. The questions have scrolled on the jumbo screens at Times Square in New York City and on the Las Vegas Strip.
“It has never felt so important to pause and reflect on ourselves and the world around us,” said Reboot chief executive officer David Katznelson. “We are living in such a unique moment of human history, a moment that is worth turning to the individual to ask big questions about what we can learn to take us into the future.”
Like many of you, I approach the New Year and Yom Kippur with a heavy heart. Ashamnu. We have sinned. Much is not well, not as it should or can be. Our communities are filled with anger, fear, hatred, pain, and acrimony.
Our tradition placed a heavy burden on us. Atonement is only attainable when accompanied by a commitment to change one’s behaviour. The burden is doubly heavy, for we are not merely responsible for our individual failings, but for our societal ones. Ashamnu. We have sinned. Yom Kippur is not merely a day of prayer in search of Divine forgiveness, but a day of taking responsibility for the world that we have created.
There are so many places to start this process and, for those who don’t know where, the Jewish prayer book provides guidance. Ashamnu. Bagadnu. Gazalnu. Dibarnu dofi. We have sinned. We have betrayed. We have taken that which is not ours. We have spoken evil.
This year, I will begin with the sin of certainty. The certainty that I have the truth and others do not. The certainty that I am right and others wrong. The certainty that I am good and others bad. The certainty that I love my country and others do not.
“Our God and God of our ancestors, we are neither so insolent nor so obstinate as to claim in your presence that we are righteous, without sin; for we, like our ancestors who came before us, have sinned.” (Yom Kippur Machzor)
Inherent to every social structure is the reality of difference. Members, adherents, citizens, who join or are joined together by blood, race, gender, ideology, religion, culture or nationality, inevitably find themselves disagreeing over issues both minor and major. Differences are a permanent and inevitable reality of life. By themselves, they do not undermine social cohesion. What threatens unity is how we respond to the reality.
The three conceptual tools for reflecting on difference are pluralism, tolerance and deviance. When those who are different are classified as deviant, the possibility of a shared society with them comes to an end. It is here that the sin of certainty spreads its destructive poison. The hubris of certainty allows one to shun and shame those who do not share in the truth as you know it, and to move them to the margins of society, if not outside it. Armed with certainty, acts of blatant aggression are clothed with the garments of self-preservation and sanctioned as acts of group loyalty.
A certainty of a different form is played out in the category of pluralism. We are pluralistic toward those differences that we assume to be of equal value to our own positions – “These and these are the words of the living God.” With pluralism, we accommodate difference that we believe is equally authentic and that we can associate as being on par with our truth, our knowledge and our beliefs. These and these are the words of the living God, but not those and those. And the one who decides is us.
Why tolerate that which I believe to be wrong?
The danger that lies with the sin of certainty is that it attempts to create social life around the categories of pluralism and deviance alone. Difference to which I ascribe value is accommodated and welcomed as my friend. Difference that I do not, is rejected and ostracized as my enemy. I and my certainty are the ultimate arbiters of who is in and who is out, who is valued and who is not, who is to be cared for and who is not, who is to be respected and who vilified.
It is tolerance, the often-derided category, that is most absent in much of contemporary social discourse. One does not tolerate that which one values, but rather that which one thinks is wrong. Tolerance can only take root in those places where we are able to relinquish our claim to certainty. Why tolerate that which I believe to be wrong? Because I know it is possible that my belief may also be wrong. Because I believe that truth, knowledge and enlightenment will only grow when I expose my certainty to the critique of others; when I am open to learn from others’ truths, knowledge and experience.
Why tolerate that which I believe to be wrong? Because I and those like me do not have a monopoly over the “true” identity of our society. It is theirs just as much as it is ours. We are destined to live with those who believe and do that which we hold to be intolerable. In some cases, judgment of deviance is both called for and necessary and, without boundaries, our societies will dissolve and lose any purpose, meaning and identity.
Which difference do we tolerate, and which do we not, is the question. The sin of certainty both blinds us to this question and renders us incapable of such discernment. The price? The price is the dysfunctional harmful social discourse and behaviour dominating our lives today.
“Our God and God of our ancestors, we are neither so insolent nor so obstinate as to claim in Your presence we are certain.”
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartmanis president of the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of the 2016 book Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. Articles by Hartman and other institute scholars can be found at shalomhartman.org.
Services in the Schara Tzedeck auditorium, with social-distancing measures in place. (photo by Camille Wener)
In early March, Canadians were just beginning to take COVID-19 seriously. Then, in what seemed like an instant, the province shut down all places where people gather. Religious organizations were forced to close their doors – in some cases for the first time in more than a century – and rethink everything about how they engage with their congregants.
In a survey of rabbis and synagogue leaders across British Columbia after a summer of COVID, what emerges is not so much a story of hardship and difficulty but of resilience, creativity and a paring away of the superfluous to rediscover the most elemental things that we seek from spirituality and community.
The loss of life, the horrible illness and difficult recovery have directly affected thousands of British Columbia families, but we have fared better than many other jurisdictions. Even those not directly affected by the virus itself have had heartbreaking occasions, such as losing loved ones to other causes without family beside them, funerals and shivahs conducted online and, of course, the various burdens and isolation experienced by older people, those who live alone or others who are especially vulnerable.
As we approach High Holidays that are assured to be unlike any we have experienced before, there is an air of anxiety, but more evident is a flexibility and commitment to make the holidays as meaningful as possible. Although close coordination has taken place through RAV, the Rabbinical Association of Vancouver, every congregation is finding its own way and the holidays in most cases will occur along a spectrum of hybrid in-person and online services, most with multiple smaller, shorter programs. Services that routinely occur outdoors, such as Tashlich, will be joined in some cases with shofar-blowing and other services held out of doors. Despite all, reaction among rabbis is that community engagement and flexibility have made these months far better than could have been predicted in March.
“From day one, our motto was, we are not ramping down, we are ramping up,” said Rabbi Jonathan Infeld. His Conservative shul, Beth Israel, had not previously done programs or services online but, within 24 hours of the shutdown, all activities had moved online.
Zoom, an online meeting platform that almost no one had heard of before the pandemic, has proved a lifeline for individuals and communities, including almost all synagogues in the province. The platform’s interactivity allows individuals to participate in services, make virtual aliyot, engage in back-and-forth with teachers and guest speakers, and participate from home in numbers that rabbis say are routinely higher than in-person programs in “normal” times. “The social community of the synagogue’s remained intact,” said Infeld.
Most of Beth Israel’s congregants will experience the High Holidays from home, online. “It’s only the people who are leading the services and/or their families who will be in the building,” he said.
Provincial regulations permit a maximum of 50 people in any gathering, with social distancing enforced. For synagogues, that number varies based on the size of a sanctuary and the reality is that, to ensure two-metre separation, smaller synagogues will be able to accommodate far fewer than 50.
For the Orthodox Congregation Schara Tzedeck, however, online Shabbat and holiday services are not an option.
“We’ve had to think very creatively,” said Camille Wenner, executive director of the synagogue. “This was the first time in 110 years that our doors closed for davening,” she said.
People who had made minyan every week of their life suddenly couldn’t.
“That was really difficult,” said Wenner. “That’s why it was so important for us to mobilize a chesed committee to connect with everyone and make sure that everyone was OK. That’s how the idea of Shabbat in a Box developed and the idea of feeding people and making them feel that that ritual of Shabbat is still very much alive, you don’t have to be here to do it, we can still do it together.” That concept will be extended to Rosh Hashanah in a Box, which will go to more than 300 households.
Schara Tzedeck was the first Orthodox synagogue in Canada to reopen to limited in-person services, on June 1. “It was nerve-racking,” Wenner admitted. The usual single Shabbat service has been increased to two. Hand sanitizers and masks are required. Those who do not bring their own siddur are handed a newly cleaned one. Additional custodial staff are on hand to wipe down the entire sanctuary between services. An online registration program allows congregants to see how many of the 50 seats remain available.
For the holidays, services will be expanded to meet demand, she said. Rabbis and cantors who work in day schools and elsewhere in the community have volunteered to lead smaller services, which will occur in various places throughout the building and may even take place under a tent in the parking lot, if need be.
“The services will be condensed to about two hours instead of the regular five,” she said. “Right now, we’re looking at six or seven services back to back starting at 6:30 in the morning.”
The Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture normally doesn’t run programming through the summer. But, this year, the Sholem Aleichem Speakers Series has continued every Friday on Zoom and Exploring Jewish Writers, on Saturday mornings, also has continued through the summer, said Donna Becker, the centre’s executive director. “Both of them are better attended on Zoom than they were in person,” she said.
Peretz Centre holiday services will feature Stephen Aberle singing Kol Nidre, but the usual musical program, which sees the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir interspersed with the audience, is obviously out of the question.
This year’s High Holidays will be the first since the inception of the progressive congregation Ahavat Olam in 2004 that will not be held at the Peretz Centre. Said board member Alan Bayless: “We would prefer not to use computers for Shabbat or High Holiday services, but we believe that virtual services are necessary for our community this year given the danger of the coronavirus.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Wineberg of Chabad Lubavitch BC, said the 10 Chabad centres in the province are all adopting protocols appropriate for their congregants’ needs. He worries that, with daily infection reports often heading in the wrong direction, the province may re-impose stricter regulations by the time the holidays roll around. Either way, he suspects many or most people will be marking the holidays at home. “It’s the reality,” he said. “It’s a question of what works and what is acceptable and what isn’t.”
On the positive side, online learning has skyrocketed.
“The amount of study that’s going on by Zoom is absolutely unprecedented,” Wineberg said. “That’s the silver lining. I have a feeling that it will continue once this pandemic is over, God willing as soon as possible, I think people are going to continue learning that way. You have the convenience of sitting in your home and participating almost as if you are there – that’s the new reality.”
The Reform synagogue Temple Sholom had a running leap at livestreaming services, so some of the infrastructure was well in place before the pandemic. The difference now is the effort they are going to not just to allow people at home to observe, but to participate in the services. Classes, webinars and other programs have been expanded online. The Men’s Club and the Sisterhood have moved their programs onto Zoom. The accessibility means Temple Sholom programs are reaching new audiences, often far outside Vancouver.
The summer weather has allowed the synagogue to hold some events in parks and in the courtyard behind the shul. Still, Rabbi Carey Brown has no illusions that these High Holidays will be like any other. For one thing, only clergy will be in the sanctuary.
“It will be really different,” said Brown, who is the synagogue’s associate rabbi. “We are working really hard to put together High Holiday services and experiences that will help people feel the sense of the season, both the newness of the new year and the reflectiveness of the season.”
The Okanagan Jewish Community, which does not have a permanent rabbi, has depended on volunteers to deliver programs and services. The Kelowna-area centre has seen significant growth, and is running an 11-person conversion class and various adult education programs on Zoom. As great as all that is, Steven Finkelman, the centre’s president, thinks this might be a tough year financially for the group, a concern expressed by several interviewees. Revenue generated at the High Holidays and through in-person galas or other fundraising events in normal years is likely to suffer this year.
While online programming has proven hugely popular, there can be no denying that this experience has resulted in some missed opportunities. Rabbi Philip Gibbs of West Vancouver’s Conservative shul Har-El, has pangs of regret when he thinks back to the grand plans the synagogue had in January for a year of innovation and new initiatives.
“I was very excited about both the scale and the types and the variety of programming – more cooking events or culturally focused programs that really were going to give our community the chance to gather and engage in a really fun, exciting and meaningful way,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve lost that opportunity.”
The challenges and opportunities of the High Holidays will be met with one or more services on different days, he said. While he and his congregation are making the best of the situation, Gibbs laments the loss of in-person collective connection.
Similarly, Rabbi Hannah Dresner of Or Shalom, which is affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement, grieves the loss of some in-person connections. However, she feels that Zoom can provide an intimacy that a large group gathering might not. As well, not only are out-of-towners joining Or Shalom’s offerings, but the rabbi and others are surfing programs throughout the Jewish world and beyond.
“I just think it’s a time when the world is our oyster,” said Dresner. “Spiritually you can look for whatever kinds of workshops you want, so people are experimenting a lot more.”
Or Shalom will hold successive Tashlich services at False Creek, each accommodating congregants in limited numbers. For the well-being of ducks and other birds, Or Shalom members drop leaves rather than bread in the water.
“I love the creative challenge, but I can’t say it doesn’t keep me up at night,” Dresner said, laughing. “I hear a lot of rabbis say, I didn’t sign up for this. There’s nothing that we’re doing that I signed up for.”
This extraordinary time has forced and invited rabbis and others to reconsider everything. The changes have made her reflect on “what’s at the heart of the service, what do we really need, what’s extraneous, what makes it tedious? Because it cannot be tedious. It’s got to be tight, shorter and beautiful.”
Rabbi Levi Varnai of the Bayit in Richmond concurs that the crisis forced a reckoning. “If a synagogue is not doing services – and we don’t do services online – what do we do? It got us thinking to the real core of what a synagogue is really supposed to be about,” he said.
As an Orthodox shul, the Bayit cannot stream services on Shabbat or the holidays, but they have expanded classes throughout the week and held socially distanced events at Garry Point Park. Pre-Shabbat events help people prepare for the Sabbath and regular phone calls and visits by the rabbi and volunteers to speak with people from a distance and drop off packages keep a sense of community alive.
Now that limited in-person gatherings are permitted, the shul’s size permits 25 congregants. But even that is not quite as it was. “It’s coming in, praying and going, which is great because it’s more than we had before that,” he said, but there’s no food and no kibbitzing.
The holidays will see multiple services and people can arrange to be there specifically for Yizkor but perhaps not come for the entire day.
The chaos of shifting suddenly from the way things have always been done has not left Varnai a lot of time to reflect. But, when pressed, he acknowledged how surreal it is.
“It’s a huge change to the regular Jewish life that I’m accustomed to since I was a young boy, since my bar mitzvah, praying three times a day with a quorum of others,” he said. It’s a stunning transformation, but entirely within Jewish tradition. “We always put safety and well-being and health first.”
He puts the whole thing in perspective. “Our people came out of the centuries and had to go through a lot worse,” he said. “Not going to synagogue is not fun but, thank God, other generations were challenged with much greater hardships and we’re relatively blessed.”
Beth Hamidrash, the only Sephardi synagogue in Canada west of Toronto, counts among its congregants Dr. Jocelyn Srigley, a microbiologist who is a director with the infection prevention and control branch of the Provincial Health Services Authority. Rabbi Shlomo Gabay and shul president Eyal Daniel credit Srigley with helping guide them through this difficult time and say it was on her advice that their synagogue was the first in the city to close.
Despite the challenges, however, engagement is better than ever, said the rabbi. Daniel added that synagogue membership has actually jumped 20% since the pandemic began, something he credits to an increased desire for meaning, and also a direct outreach he began when he became president in June to encourage occasional attendees to commit to membership.
The strange situation has also helped strengthen relations between Beth Hamidrash and the two Sephardi congregations in Seattle. They virtually co-hosted an Israeli historian speaking on Medieval Spain, for example.
Probably no rabbi has had an experience quite like Rabbi Susan Tendler. The new spiritual leader at Richmond’s Conservative shul Beth Tikvah arrived in the midst of the lockdown with her family from her previous posting in Chattanooga, Tenn. The family then had to quarantine for 14 days, with community members dropping off prepared meals and greeting the family from a distance. Despite that unusual arrival, or perhaps because of it, she has reflected on big things.
“While I would never wish the pandemic on this world or on any person, really, this is an opportunity for renewal,” she said. “We do all have to reconsider what we’re doing and what our goals are and find new paths for reaching them.”
While hoping that services might return to normal in the not-too-distant future, she acknowledged that the very term sanctuary implies that every congregant must feel secure. “At a minimum,” she said, “it has to feel safe.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended to reflect that Or Shalom is affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement, not the Reconstructionist movement, as stated in the original online and print versions.
While it may not be divine intervention that brought us technologies like the communications platform Zoom, it is undeniable that 21st-century tech has made this bizarre, scary and tragic time a little less isolating.
Much has been written and said about the tragedy of this pandemic. The loss of life worldwide is devastating and heart-rending. Families and friends have been kept apart at the best of times. At the worst of times, however, when hugs and human touch are needed most, this is especially cruel. Saying final goodbyes by telephone or on a little screen is unbearably painful.
In the meantime, though, something has happened that probably few of us anticipated when this pandemic hit us full force in mid-March. We have seen people at their best, coming together to help those who need it, checking in on neighbours and family who are isolated, taking steps that are uncomfortable for us in the short-term because it is in our collective best interests in the long-term. What could have been a time exemplified by fear and anxiety, selfishness, isolation and retrenchment has been, in so many cases, including in our synagogues and so many other community organizations, a time of unparalleled flexibility, creativity and devotion to what really matters.
We cannot overestimate the power of a comparatively simple technology like Zoom. Presumably intended as a business tool, it has exploded into our pandemic world as perhaps the new century’s version of what old long-distance advertisements promised – it’s the next best thing to being there.
Nothing can replace a hug or even just the proximity of our loved ones. But imagine the alternative of going through these past few months without small miracles like technology that lets us see the faces of our friends. Human nature tends to take for granted whatever we receive almost as soon as we’ve got it in hand. But the future we marveled at in the 1960s while watching fanciful cartoons like The Jetsons is reality today. Not the flying cars (yet) but the wall-mounted video phones are better: we hold them in our hands or sit them on our laps.
The medium is the message, said the great Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan. In future, people will look back and ponder how the technologies that united us in this time of isolation changed us and the way we communicate. In the meantime, we can already see that technology has led to even more engagement with learning, socializing and spiritual exploration than happened in-person before we had heard of COVID. And, while so many warn that we are on the verge of being “Zoomed out,” a recent poll contradicts this idea, finding that Canadians overwhelmingly love the freedom to connect to everywhere from anywhere. For Vancouverites, especially younger ones who are forced to move some distance from their parents due to housing prices, Zoom and similar tools can permit virtual visits without hours of time-wasting (and environmentally deleterious) travel. An hour-long business meeting that might have required 45 minutes of commuting and parking time starts and ends at the dining room table, freeing up hours per week for children, partners, housework, leisure, hobbies or sleep.
As we now prepare to celebrate the High Holidays in ways that our ancestors could never have imagined, we will depend on these technologies to deliver an approximation of normalcy. It won’t be normal, of course. But it’s normal for now. And that is a blessing.