One year ago, our year of COVID life truly began. Everything moved online. The NCAA Tournament, was canceled last year. We began figuring out how to use the video conferencing technologies that have become an essential part of our lives and we began a year of social distancing and isolation.
When we began, we really didn’t know what to expect, but we were anxious about what the future would bring. The past year has been difficult in many ways. For no few of us with health concerns, the need for isolation was both pressing and difficult to endure. Some of us became ill ourselves. Some of us lost loved ones to the disease.
We adapted as best we could to what COVID brought and we’ll continue to adapt in the weeks ahead as opportunities arise to interact in person, to restore a bit of normalcy, at least where and when we can. I don’t know about you, but where fist bumps and elbow bumps once seemed really awkward and standoffish compared with a handshake or a hug, okay they can still be pretty awkward, I can tell you now that I look forward to those fist bumps anytime over a wave after a virtual conversation. Fist bumps aren’t virtual.
There are so many people, I’ve wished I could hug over the past year, both in celebration and in times of sorrow. I’ve got a pretty long backlog of hugs to distribute when I can. And I’m happy to receive them, if you feel like you would like to offer.
This past year, in addition to difficulty and challenge, has also brought some positive developments.
A year ago this past Tuesday, I hosted what would be our first of weekly meetings of the Iowa Jewish Professionals Group, the rabbis, Jewish Federation directors, and other leaders of Jewish organizations in Iowa. We started off getting 10-12 people to attend. Now, it’s a pretty regular 18-20, spanning the state. We have met every week and shared what has been going on in our communities, asking for and receiving advice, as well as sharing our programming and holding joint programs. We have built camaraderie and cooperation across the state that I believe will endure and outlast the pandemic.
Our Shabbat Shirah program in January may have been the best attended non-High Holiday Friday night service in the history of the state. With over 170 boxes on Zoom and with many of those being couples and families, along with many viewers on Facebook Live as well, we had well over 250 people attend most of the service. It was a fun night as a dozen rabbis and music leaders from nine congregations across the state led us in prayer and song.
Yet, though we can find good things that have happened or have developed over the past year, we mourn the losses of too many members of our families and our community, we mourn for the lost opportunities that the pandemic took away, and for the regular companionship of friends, including our gatherings at the Temple, which we often took for granted that were kept from us, all but virtually.
We have lived through a virtual year. We celebrated holidays, birthdays, and life cycle events, interacted with our friends, attended programs, watched movies, and even enjoyed dinners with loved ones, all online. The technology did sometimes allow us to be together when we otherwise might not have been able, bringing together family and friends across the country or even across oceans, and allowed us to attend many programs in other cities that we would not have been able to attend. But we missed the opportunities to gather to mourn and celebrate.
For Passover, this year, like last year, most of didn’t gather for a large Seder, but unlike last year, when normalcy seemed somewhere beyond the distant horizon, this year, perhaps we see it beginning to arrive. Many people have already received doses of vaccine. We have now surpassed a national milestone of 100 million doses and they tell us that by early summer, it is possible that everyone who is able to do so and wants to get vaccinated will be able to be vaccinated. Last year, there was fear. This year, hope.
This has been a year of asking the question from the Passover Hagadah, “Mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh mi kol haleilot?” “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Over and over and over again. And a year in which the answer for months was largely a shrug. We couldn’t really give an answer to that question. We might even have been pressed to remember what day it was at times. Things are beginning to be different. Our nights are starting to be different from one another. Spring is almost here in more ways than one.
Now, we can begin to plan to return, to come back, to reengage, to live lives in which pants and footwear might matter! We will begin to turn from the virtual world to the real world. It will be wonderful to be with people in person again.
As we do, we’ll have to remember a few things when we’re gathering in the real world:
- In services, sing along, but sing in harmony- Everyone’s voice will now be heard with others.
- Be where we are- Paying attention is going to be a challenge, when we’ve been so used to being able to multitask, to turn off our video and wander around, or to disconnect and reconnect at will. Being there is constant.
- There is no mute button: We can’t mute our voices when we don’t want to be heard or mute the noises of the chaos around us, nor can we mute others. So when that call comes in on your cell phone, your ringer should already be off, and, just a reminder, you shouldn’t answer it as if you’re alone during the service.
- When we’re together, ask for names: Unlike Zoom boxes, people don’t come with labels. Though we probably should make sure to have name tags available, ask for people’s names, if you don’t already know them.
- Finally, make sure to hug your family members and your friends. Spend time with them. You never know when you might suddenly not be able to do so.
As we begin a second year in our post-COVID world, we’re not quite ready for a Shehecheyanu yet. When it’s all over, we’ll offer one; a really loud heartfelt one. Maybe then we’ll add a Tekiah Gedolah as well to celebrate our joy! But we’re getting closer. If this were a Passover Seder, we’d be opening the door for Elijah about now, dinner over, Afikomen found, three of the four cups down.
It is time to talk of renewal and reengagement. The time is coming soon. We’re almost there. Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Kaufman