Posts Tagged 'COVID-19'

Needing as a Blessing: Connecting,Covid-19, and Metzorah

In the beginning of Genesis, we read of the curses that God meted out to Adam, Eve, and the snake upon their violating the prohibition against eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Adam needs to work the land to get food. Eve will have pain in childbirth. The snake received the different punishment. There we read, “and the dust of the earth you shall eat all the days of your life.”( Genesis 3:14 ) The Hassidic master Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa asked why this punishment at all. Now the snake, by virtue of this curse, would be able to subside on dirt. This being the case, the snake would never have to work to obtain sustenance, as dirt is everywhere! This seems like more of a reward than a punishment.

Juxtaposed the snake, when a person is having difficulty sustaining themselves and will turn to God for help. While people have to endure hardship in order to achieve certain goals, they can turn to God to ask for assistance. Rav Simcha Bunim argues that God wants us to ask for help when we need it. The process of asking for help itself helps us to develop a bond between us and God. One should feel that he or she is asking a friend, someone who is close, caring, and willing to help. God wants a close bond to exist between us. In this way prayer is a way of creating and strengthening this bond.

Ironically, the snake is fortunate in that it has all of his needs provided for. It has nothing to ask of God and nothing for which to request God’s assistance. The curse for the snake is no reason to develop a relationship with God.

Woman finds giant snake - YouTube

I was thinking about this when reading Metzorah, this week’s Torah reading. Here we learn about a ton of maladies. Fear of COVID-19 has sparked a vigilance for various symptoms. Before this we have never been so attuned to all of the ailments, impurities, fevers and rashes in our lives. Spending so much time stuck at home has made us much more aware of what is and not coming into the house. Strangely Metzorah is more relevant then ever. There we read:

When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” (Leviticus 14:35)

There is an interesting way in which we need to go to a priest to explore how to make meaning of the plague. There is an assumption that there must be meaning behind the plague and we cannot claim to  know what it is. Therefore we say that there is “something like a plague has shown itself to me”, without certainty (see Rashi there). We must seek connection with another person to make meaning out of this event.

We see that this plague mandates that people reach out to make a connection with a priest. In the spirit of the Rav Simcha Bunim’s lesson on the curse of the snake being its disconnection from God, the blessing of Metzorah is the connection to people. Needing is a good thing. It is the foundation for growth and connection.

Covid-19 and all of its variants has been horrible. We recently passed 6 million deaths due to this disease. But in light of this Torah portion, we see that another curse of Covid-19 is the compliancy and comfort we have developed for social isolation. Like Rav Simcha Bunim, Brené Brown, my Vulnerability Rebbe, writes:

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

The question for us as we emerge from Covid-19 is if we will allow ourselves to express need, be vulnerable, and reach out to make human connections. That will surely be a blessing.

Herd Immunity: Amalek and the Most Vulnerable

The last couple of years have felt like a roller coaster ride. We went from weeks of global fear due to a pandemic to moments of personal salvation and back to national challenges only to elation of the creation of a vaccine and all of this has been accented by precious family time in the safety of our home and longing to be with family and friends outside our bubble. We have gone from the highest of the highs to the lowest of the lows and back again.

This gives me a have a different insight into the life of the Israelites that we see in B’shalach, this week’s Torah portion. Recently having being freed from slavery in Egypt they find themselves about to die stuck between Pharaoh’s approaching chariots and the sea. And then just like that the sea splits, they escape, and they oppressors drown the bottom of the sea. Continuing the roller coaster ride we go from the high of the Songs by the Sea to the low of their complaining and questioning God about the Manna. If all of this was not enough the portion ends with the lowest of the low, their being routed by the Amalekites. There we read:

The place was named Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and because they tried the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord present among us or not?” And Amalek came and made war with Israel in Refidim.

Exodus 17:7-8

On this Rashi comments:

Scripture places this section immediately after this preceding verse (they said, “Is the Lord among us or not?”) to imply, “I am ever among you and ready at hand for every thing you may need, and yet you say, “Is the Lord among us or not?” By your lives, I swear that the hound (Amalek) shall come and bite you, and you will cry for Me and then you will know where I am!” A parable: it may be compared to a man who carried his son upon his shoulder, and went out on a journey. The son saw an article and said, “Father, pick up that thing and give it to me”. He gave it to him, and so a second time and so also a third time. They met a certain man to whom the son said, “Have you seen my father anywhere?” Whereupon his father said to him, “Don’t you know where I am?” — He, therefore, cast him off from himself and a hound came and bit him (Midrash Tanchuma, Yitro 3).

Rashi on Exodus 17:8

On one level this parable seems to align with the little boy who cried wolf. As if God is saying, “You complain, well I will give you something to complain about.” On another level it is interesting in that it evokes the image of a young child as the victim. This is a compelling dimension in the context of what we learn about this attack in Deuteronomy. There we read:

Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

Deuteronomy 25:17-18

Amalek was particularly awful because they attacked us from the rear. They targeted the most vulnerable among us, the elderly and the children.

This idea was brought to life for me when I saw this extraordinary footage from a drone of a reindeer cyclone from above:

If you are a young, old, or weak reindeer, you will find yourself at the heart of the herd and it offers you protection. If you are strong you are on the outside protecting the weak. The reindeer protect their rear by creating this cyclone.

To only way to deal with the roller coaster is to circle up. In many ways this is the same thinking this is the rationale behind getting vaccinated. This is the very idea of the strong supporting the weak and creating a cyclone effect of herd immunity.

The End if Near- I Hope

Recently I saw this cartoon that seems to speaks to this moment of the resurgence of Covid. It is so spot on:

Seeing this cartoon reminded of the lyrics from Closing Time by Semisonic, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

I was thinking of this all this week when reading parshat VaYechi, this week’s Torah portion, and the end of the book of Genesis. It seems to be the end of all of the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs and the tying up of all the loss ends.  Yaakov gives all of descendants their blessings, he will give instructions for his death. With Yaakov’s death we are at end the our story being about a family. Next week we will start the story as a nation in Egypt. Here is the end of the family narrative and with that we begin the story of us a people. Is this a moment of happiness or sadness?

This reminds me of a great midrash:

King Solomon has said: The day of one’s death is better than that of his birth. When a human being is born all rejoice, and when he dies all weep. But it should not be so. Rather, at one’s birth no one has yet cause to rejoice; for no one knows to what future the babe is born, what will be the development of his intellect or of his soul, and by what works he will stand; whether he will be a righteous person or a wicked person, whether they will be good or evil; whether good or evil will befall them. But when they die, then all ought to rejoice if they have departed leaving a good name, and has gone out of this world in peace.

This may be likened, in a parable, to two ships that set out to sail upon the great ocean. One of them was going forth from the harbor, and one of them was coming into the harbor. And every one was cheering the ship that set sail from the harbor, and rejoicing, and giving it a joyous send-off. But over the ship that came into the harbor no one was rejoicing.

There was a wise man there who said: “I see a reason for the very opposite conduct to yours. You ought not to rejoice with the ship that is going out of the harbor, for no one knows what will be her fate; how many days she will have to spend on the voyage, and what storms and tempests she will encounter. But as to the ship that has arrived safely in port, all should rejoice with her, for she has returned in peace.”

Midrash Koheleth 7

I was thinking about this idea this past week during Asarah B’Tevet, the 10th of Tevet. This fast day commemorated when Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, began the siege of Jerusalem (588 BCE). 18 months later, on the 17th of Tammuz his troops broke through the city walls. The siege ended with the destruction of the Temple three weeks later, on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), the end of the first Kingdoms and the exile of the Jewish people to Babylon.

Asarah B’Tevet is thus considered to be the beginning of the end of the Jewish world as it was known during the First Temple period. This started the Second Temple period. When that came to an end on the 9th of Av we began our rabbinic diasporic reality. Is the end of an era good or bad? Like the wise man in the midrash I want to be an optimist and say that it is a good thing. We call all wish of the end of our current era/situation and dream about what will come next.

Lessons from the Second City: Rethinking Rebuilding

-written with Stefan Teodosic

On October 8, 1871, a fire broke out in Patrick and Catherine O’Leary’s barn on the southwest side of Chicago, Illinois. It soon spread to envelop the entire city. Lasting until the 10th, the fire burned through the heart of Chicago, killing 300 people, and leaving one-third of the city’s population homeless. 150 years ago, while the embers were still smoldering, they started the process of rebuilding Chicago. The destruction was devastating, but it’s the rebuilding of the city that has drawn our attention today. While some rushed to rebuild Chicago the way it had been, others set out to realize a new vision for what Chicago could become. The “Great Rebuilding” was a bold effort to construct a new urban center. 

Michigan Avenue bridge relief in Chicago. The relief called Regeneration depicts workers rebuilding Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; Shutterstock.

Their vision for a new Chicago would include new architecture. The Windy City built skyscrapers with steel and terra cotta. They changed major systems including laying the city out in a grid and making trash alleys to improve their waste removal. They also took care to protect themselves against future fires. To this end, they passed new laws requiring new buildings to be constructed with fireproof masonry and sprinkler systems and people to purchase fire insurance. They also opened an academy to train firemen. 

Accomplishing these things required alignment amongst organizations and partnerships between government, companies, investors and philanthropists. In short order, boosters needed to communicate this opportunity with all stakeholders, including citizens, to move forward on these fresh, transformational ideas for a safer, nicer and more resilient Second City. This new metropolis would become the home to big businesses, innovative buildings and a new style of architecture. 

It has been 150 years, but where is the Jewish community today? We have been dealing with COVID-19 and its variants for over 19 months. Having just finished the holidays, we look forward to the work ahead of us in 5782. In many ways the embers are still smoldering. Are we going to rebuild our community the way it was, or are we going to set out a grand revision for our communities’ “Great Rebuilding”? What lessons can we learn from Chicago?

Just as they did, we have to rise up and meet the moment, make sustainable change and lay the foundation for the future. We must co-create an intentional process to assess the damage, see what should be salvaged, and bring together a diverse group of stakeholders to do an intentional, thoughtful, transformational visioning process. We need to see the blessing in the crisis and not just recreate what we had. Like the boosters that led the rebuilding after the Chicago fire, we need to tell a new story. We need to move beyond the trappings of tradition for its own sake, embrace this opportunity together to identify shared outcomes, and figure out our priorities, strategies and the resources we will need to achieve this vision. We need to create ownership and buy-in at all levels of the community and create partnerships within and across sectors. This coalition of the willing will have to align and seize the opportunity with passion and a unified sense of purpose. 

Just saying it does not make it easy. To do this we will need to be courageous, vulnerable, open and trust divergent perspectives. We will need to explore possibilities for our future with childlike curiosity along with well-tempered discipline to pursue this new venture. And even when we can articulate a shared vision, we will need to follow a methodical change management process. We will need to continue to measure our success and failures against agreed upon outputs and outcomes. And like the fire academy, we must teach the next generation so they are prepared for the next trauma no matter what it might be. We need resiliency in this chaotic world where the only constant is instability. 

While Chicago focused on its buildings, we need to evolve our organizational architecture. How will we rethink our finances, human resources, technology, marketing and communications, governance and training of our professionals and board members? How will we rebuild our communities while prioritizing the mental, emotional, social and spiritual health of individuals? Just as Chicago redrew the lines of how the city was organized, we too need to open up lines of communication and collaboration between different sectors of engagement and education (overnight and day camps, youth groups, schools, congregations etc ), critical mass builders (JFNA, Movements, North American intermediaries like FJC, Prizmah, Hillel, Moishe House etc), funders (philanthropists and local Federations), government and other partners in the Jewish communal ecosystem in North America, Israel and around the world.

We happen to be two Jewish camp guys at heart. While we are always working to add value in our own spaces, we know we each have a limited perspective. If there ever was a time to look beyond ourselves, our assumptions, our individual communities and our own sector – to listen to a diversity of ideas, priorities, experiences and perspectives and share how our work and vision may intersect and impact each other in the broader communal field – it’s now. It is imperative that we lean in and listen to the needs of the Jewish people, not just Jewish institutions. We need to adopt a truly inclusive approach, based in a posture of abundance. We will not be successful if we start with scarcity and judge people based on a current or past level of participation or engagement. All of our voices and our data have to be in this process. If not we could build something thoughtful and intentional, that flat out misses the mark. 

This past Shabbat we read Lech Lecha, in which Avraham and Sarah strike out to innovate and build a new nation. Similarly, this is our chance to do a grand re-envisioning and to imagine a new way to organize and explore Jewish life. Survival is not enough. Rebuilding the way it was or just adapting it is not enough. As we emerge from COVID, we have the opportunity to learn from the Second City, disrupt the status quo, and build a better, more resilient community for the future. What will our community look like in a year? In 10? In 150? 

The two of us may be starting this conversation, but we are hoping that you will continue it. Whether you show up as a Jewish communal professional, an individual community member or a lay leader, your unique voice is integral to weaving the rich tapestry of the Jewish life of tomorrow. If you are interested, please add your voice to this conversation. How might we rebuild Jewish life anew? Introduce yourself, share your thoughts, and identify how you’d like to take part in this process here. We would love to be in conversation. 

Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow (he,him) is the vice president of innovation and education at Foundation for Jewish Camp. He can be reached at avi@jewishcamp.org 

Stefan Teodosic (he,him) was a longtime Jewish camp director/executive director and is the founder of Maverick Soul Consulting, based in Chicago. Maverick Soul provides a trusted, collaborative teammate with corporate experience and a nonprofit soul in the areas of vision, strategic planning and change management. He can be reached at Stefan@mavericksoulconsulting.com  

Reposted from eJp

Herd,Happiness, and Hakafot

Hakafot on Sukkot bring happiness. In this ritual we encircle the bimah while holding the Four species on each of the seven days of the holiday. On Simchat Torah, the custom is to take the Torah scrolls out of the Ark and to encircle the bima and throughout the synagogue with great joy, singing, and dancing.

This circular movement is a symbol of perfection and unity, and communal cooperation. According to the story told in the Book of Joshua, the Israelites walked around the city of Jericho once a day for a week and seven times on the seventh day, with the priests leading the way, carrying the Ark of the Covenant each time. On the seventh day, the people blew the  shofar and shouted, causing the walls to fall and allowing them to enter the city. In the Temple period, when they wanted to add area to the Temple Mount, they first encircled the desired area and only after added land to the Temple Mount. Clearly this ritual finds analogous behavior in our Muslim’s circumambulation around the Kaaba Stone.

This might give us the historical context of the hakafot, is there any inner meaning to the custom? I had not given this much thought until I saw this extraordinary footage from a drone of a reindeer cyclone from above:

If you are a young, old, or weak reindeer, you will find yourself at the heart of the herd and it offers you protection. If you are strong you are on the outside protecting the weak. The herd provides you purpose. As Dr Daniel Dennet said in one of my favorite TED Talks” The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” In their circular movement all of reindeer find their happiness in that they can dedicate their life to the safety of the herd.

We see the same thing when it comes to hakafot. Our circling as a community centers the needs of the community at the heart of our herd.

I would think we feel the same way about getting vaccinated. This is the very idea of the strong supporting the weak and creating a cyclone effect of herd immunity. It seems on this level getting vaccinated would give our lives religious purpose.

Breaks Over: Preparing for the Fall Transition

This summer has been transformative for our children. After months of masks and social isolation they just needed camp. And now I am worried about the confluence of the resurgence of the Delta varient and their headed back to school. How will we rally them to get back into Covid restrictions after a summer of freedom?

I was thinking about this and I was reminded of a joke that my father used to say. As my dad would tell it, a man dies and goes to hell. There he is given three choices of how to spend eternity. In room one, it’s the classic version, the evil-doers being engulfed by fire and brimstone. In room two, people are buried up to their necks in poop. In room three, people are standing around knee-deep in excrement, drinking coffee. The man chooses option three. He is excited to join the group and he gets a big cup of coffee. While it is clearly not heaven, it is not that bad. He is feeling pretty good about his decision. Just as he takes his first sip there is an announcement over a loudspeaker: “Attention! Coffee break is over! Back on your heads!”

Today is my father’s 3rd Yahrzeit. I miss him, his wit, and his ability to get to the heart of the matter. This will be a difficult fall for our children, but it was a great coffee break.

Sitting Alone: On Tisha B’Av and Covid-19

Today is Tisha B’Av, the annual fast day commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem and our subsequent exile from Israel. Through it all Tisha B’Av seems to be a day of isolation. At the start of Eicha we read:

How does the city sit alone, that was full of people! How has she become as a widow! She who was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!  She weeps sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks; she has none to comfort her among all her lovers; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Yehudah is gone into exile because of affliction, and because of great servitude; she dwells among the nations, she finds no rest; all her pursuers overtook her within the straits. (Lamentations 1:1-3)

Jerusalem is alone with none to comfort her. We as a people are in exile. This theme tracks through the course of Eicha and the customs and traditions of Tisha B’Av.

Young boy sitting alone with sad feeling at school. Depressed af

It is noteworthy that this isolation of Tisha B’Av seems almost prescient of the CDC requirement for the social isolation protocols meant to stem the spread of Covid-19 and the newer Delta variant. Above and beyond getting vaccinated following these guidelines is supposed to save us.

This is echoed by Eichah when it reads:

Let him sit alone and keep silence, because God has laid it upon him. Let him put his mouth in the dust, if so be there may be hope. (Lamentation 3:28-29)

In spending today alone we are supposed to have hope in the future. In following these guidelines we are also supposed to have hope in he future.

After Death: Working for a Renaissance

This week marked the conviction of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. This is far from justice, but does give us a glimmer of accountability. This week also marked two weeks since my second vaccination. I am filled with gratitude and feel very blessed. This is my first glimpse of what life will look like post-Covid.

I was thinking about these things when reading the start of Achrai Mot- Kedoshim, this week’s Torah portion. Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, God warns against unauthorized entry “into the holy.” There we read:

The Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord. The Lord said to Moshe: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover. (Leviticus 16:1-2)

What does life look like after death? After the death of his sons Aaron is instructed how he should show up for work. After something cataclysmic, how or can things go back to normal?

Looking back into history we see that after the Spanish Flu of 1918 things went back to normal. According to one article :

The Spanish flu virus was persistent and wiped out a huge proportion of the globe during its deadliest second wave in the autumn of 1918. A third wave came in the winter of 1919, however by summer of that year, very few cases were reported. Science journalist Laura Spinney has fervently researched the Spanish flu and analysed how it was concluded. She reasons that every pandemic is shaped like a bell curve as the pathogen runs out of susceptible hosts, therefore the Spanish flu ran its natural course. There could be a similar pattern for the current pandemic. So, what have we learnt from the 1918 pandemic? That preventative measures – however difficult and limiting – do make a difference in slowing the spread of disease. That no matter how developed a health care system can be, there will still be problems. Yet positively, we can see that pandemics do all come to an end. As 100 years ago, the nation basked in a euphoric ‘roaring’ 20s, we too will experience our own roaring 2020s.  ( Microbiology Society)

I keep asking myself will life post Covid look like the roaring ’20s or will we seek out another model? After the Black Death we had the Renaissance. That sure seems better. Is that a choice we can make?

Similarly, now that we have started the process of holding law enforcement accountable, will we do the hard work of making sure that we have a justice system that is just? There needs to be one system of justice for all us. People of color should not live in fear. What kind of work do we need to do to overhaul our justice system?

“After death” we should not opt for a return to normal, rather we should choose a renaissance of art, culture, medicine, and justice. I know that this is the harder choice. There is so much desire to go back to normal. The choice of a renaissance would mean a lot of work and we are all so tired of it all. A lesson taken from this Torah portion is that even “after the death” of his sons Aaron was told to go back to work. We should not take a beat to reflect, but we need to keep our eye on the prize. “After death” we need to work for a better life and not be satisfied with normal. In the words of Randy Pausch, ” Don’t complain just work harder.”

Complaining At Work Quotes. QuotesGram

A Public Health Issue: On Margarine, Masks, and Maris Ayin

A weight has been lifted with the circulation of a viable COVID-19 vaccine. Hopefully with this panacea and more vaccines on the way, we can see the light at the end of this long tunnel. While this is incredibly good news, we are still months away from any real salvation from this plague. 

I was excited to see that the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America put out a statement earlier this week outlining their guidance regarding a Covid-19 vaccine. Based on the guidance of Rabbis Hershel Schachter, Mordechai Willig, and Dovid Cohen, they wrote:

Halacha obligates us to care for our own health and to protect others from harm and illness. In addition, Halacha directs us to defer to the consensus of medical experts in determining and prescribing appropriate medical responses to both treating and preventing illness.

There has long been an almost uniform consensus among leading medical experts that vaccines are an effective and responsible manner of protecting life and advancing health. 

Similarly Rabbi Avi Weiss published a piece in the New York Post articulating the clear Torah obligation to preserve  life. Under advisement of your personal health care provider there is a mandate to get vaccinated for COVID-19 as soon as a vaccine becomes available. But there still remains the question as to what we need to do during this  in-between period when some but not everyone has been vaccinated. After we get vaccinated, what is our mandate before the public health officials telling us that the coast is clear?

There is an interesting chapter in halachic history that might help us reflect on our current situation. In 1860’s France, with the rising popularity and cost of butter, Napoleon III made a contest offering a considerable prize to anyone who could create a satisfactory butter substitute. In 1869, chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries won the prize with his invention of “oleomargarine”, now known worldwide as margarine. Serving a parve butter-like substance at a meat meal set off a halachic problem of Maris Ayin. It is prohibited to act in a way which strictly speaking is permitted according to halacha, but nevertheless give onlookers the impression that we are doing something forbidden. Or for us now, even if someone got a newly invented vaccine are they still obligated to wear a mask and maintain CDC social distancing rules? 

Unilever seeks buyer for its butter substitutes division

The original case for Maris Ayin comes from a Mishnah discussing the appropriate attire of the priests in the Temple- lest they even seem to be doing any impropriety. There we learn:

For it is one’s duty to seem be free of blame before others as before God, as it is said: “And you shall be guiltless before the Lord and before Israel” (Numbers 32:22) ( Shekalim 3:2)

In other words, although an observer has an obligation to judge others favorably, nevertheless we still have an obligation not to do things that might raise an observer’s suspicions. 

One of the more famous applications of Maris Ayin applies to cooking and/or eating  meat in pareve almond milk. To the onlooker it appears to be a forbidden mixture of meat and milk. The simple solution to this mix up is to place almonds down to show to all that there is no actual prohibition occurring. Based on this idea, at the outset when people served margarine at a meat meal they would put the container on the table to signal that it was actually parve. We would not want anyone to believe that it was actually butter. But when did this practice stop? We clearly do not do this anymore. 

When dealing with issues of Maris Ayin Rabbi Yonason Eibeshutz extrapolated a general halachic rule that any time that the questionable object (or action) becomes commonplace, Maris Ayin no longer applies, as it will no longer arouse suspicion (Kreisi U’Pleisi Y”D 87, 8). The example he gives is if in a place where cooking in almond milk is the norm, then accordingly it would not be necessary to place almonds next to the pot, as the average onlooker would simply assume that one is cooking in pareve almond milk, and not real milk. In the case of a COVID-19 vaccination, Rabbi Eibeshutz ruling is fascinating in that something being commonplace would practically coincide with our achieving herd immunity. This is to say that we will all need to keep on our masks on until none of us need them. Our obligation is not not limited to getting the vaccination. When it comes to wearing a mask and Maris Ayin, it  is an expression of physical and spiritual public health.

From Your Parents’ Homes: Migration and the Future of Jewish Life

The Roman philosopher Seneca (and the 1990s band Semisonic) said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” 

The start of something new means that something else ends and eventually, the very thing you are starting, will end with something else’s beginning. We are thinking about this as we prepare to read Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion:

The Lord said to Avram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)

It might seem straightforward, but of course, Avram’s journey is circuitous. When he arrived in the Promised Land there was a famine, so he moved on to Egypt. Egypt proved to be threatening to Avram’s wife Sarai, so they went back to Canaan. What kind of faith, gumption, grit, and stamina did it take for him to start over (and over) again? What needed to end in Avram’s life for this new project of Jewish life to get started? Was Avram exceptional in his ability to keep moving – even to start his journey in the first place – or is this something we can access today?

As a country, we are on the move. We have started to see a huge population shift in light of the ecological crises burning and flooding where people live. And a recent Pew study reports that in response to COVID-19, 52% of Americans between 18 and 29 years of age are now living with their parents – just when most young adults in this country would be setting off from their parents’ homes on their own journey. The last time we saw numbers like this was during the Great Depression. 

Like Avram, we are searching for a home that feels safe and secure. And this project is only getting more challenging. An astounding 50 million people have filed for unemployment benefits since the start of the pandemic. This doesn’t include the millions who have finished collecting benefits, given up looking for a job, or have reluctantly taken a position far below their prior compensation level just to make ends meet. When it is safe to travel again, where will they move in search of work? When they are able to leave their parents’ homes, where will they journey? 

As individuals we might connect to Avram’s story from Lech Lecha, but as a society, this large-scale domestic migration is reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s 1939 The Grapes of Wrath. Set in the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, this classic story focuses on the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers out of work. The Joads set out for California seeking jobs, land, dignity, security, and a future. There Steinbeck writes, “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?” 

As Jews, this question drives us to craft practices that serve as regular reminders of where we come from and to whom or what we are responsible. Like a mobile hotspot, rituals allow us to connect our past to our future while on the move. Rituals like Shabbat, or reciting a blessing before eating, or tucking our kids in at night, are designed to help us be conscious of timely and timeless moments. Critically, most of these rituals pack light and are shared – deepening our connection to others. When Avram was encamped – even temporarily – he and Sarai opened their tent welcoming others to join them on their journey. They literally put stakes in the ground in order to open the door to others. Even when we are on the go, we can ground ourselves and others by welcoming them into our ritual space.  

It’s no surprise that we’ve seen a rise in Jewish engagement during the pandemic. For the majority of people still working, their homes have become their offices and even their sanctuaries. Through our screens we have discovered new ways of connecting to a larger world-wide Jewish community. We’ve heard countless stories of people streaming multiple services throughout the High Holidays – journeying across time zones to find the right fit. Rather than being part of a singular, geographically-bound community, we are discovering that we can connect on a different level. While we might be sheltering in place in one location, we have been able to join Jewish life almost everywhere. With a growth in home-based ritual – like Shabbat dinner, Sukkah building, as well as celebrations like b’nai mitzvah and weddings happening in backyards and living rooms – American Jews have empowered themselves by inviting others to join them as never before. 

We do not know what the future holds, but eventually we may find a vaccine and this period of social distancing will come to an end. Many of these 18 to 29 year olds will again leave their parents’ homes. But with that end, what will begin for them? It is hard to imagine that things will return to “normal,” and even if they could, do they want to? Can we intentionally end long-held assumptions about what it means to be a part of “the community” in order to liberate our institutions? 

How do we support those who find themselves, like Avram and the Joads, leaving home, uprooted, dealing with ecological threats, redefining relationships with parents, and reckoning with whom they want to be? What can we do to support them in their journey to find security, happiness, meaning, and purpose?

And how can we factor these questions into our planning and thinking for the Jewish future? How might our organizations – especially those designed for larger community gatherings – anticipate and even encourage multiple forms of community connection? Is it possible that Digital Judaism is here to stay? How do we prioritize the human, psychological, and spiritual needs of the traveler alongside the institution? 

It might seem like too many questions to confront as we are wrapped up in our current existential crises, but we need to look ahead during this period of migration. With Lech Lecha, we renew our commitment to continuing the journey Avram started. What will it look like for this generation to leave their parents’ homes? What is the future of Jewish engagement? We cannot afford to ignore these questions. 

Please be our guest and join us as we explore these questions in a zoom conversation about Migration and the Future of Jewish Life – Thursday, November 12th from 1:00-2:15pm ET and RSVP here

-from eJewish Philanthropy. Written with Aliza Kline who is the Co-Founder and CEO of OneTable. She has devoted her career to re-imagining Jewish ritual open to the full diversity of the community and applying a user-centered design approach to gain empathy, understand and overcome barriers to deep and enduring Jewish practice.


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