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Closing our Shuls, Opening our Homes: A Jewish Response to COVID-19

I was amazed to learn earlier this week that over 600 people had viewed and liked my posting on Facebook of Rabbi Rick Jacobs’, President of the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ), message that Reform synagogues will stay closed for the foreseeable future in response to COVID-19. “The saving of human life,” Jacobs correctly said, is Judaism’s highest value. Not surprisingly, with the exception of a small number of ultra-orthodox groups, the same policy of staying closed has been adopted across the entire Jewish denominational spectrum in the United States and around the world. I know of no rabbi who has stood up and demanded that his or her shul had to be opened because of some misconstrued view of the First Amendment or because of a divine mandate from the Torah itself. In Judaism, we believe in the ultimate value of human life, even in the face of disastrous economic loss for our congregations and beyond.

Without question, I fully endorse the decision of our synagogue and the Reform movement to keep our sanctuaries closed so long as there is a major public health danger to our community. However, there is another angle to this situation which I believe also requires public explication. The fact of the matter is that Judaism has two sanctuaries: the synagogue and the home. Home is the principle venue for Shabbat, Hanukkah, and Passover. For many, it is also the place where we observe Sukkot. We hang mezzuzot on our doors. We hang Jewish art on our walls. We maintain Jewish books in our personal libraries. We hold on to kippot from significant simchas in our lives and display pictures of ourselves holding Torahs at B’nai Mitzvah and under Chupahs at recent and distant weddings. The home, in Judaism, is a sanctuary. Now, in my opinion, is the time to make a concerted effort to open our homes, our inner spaces, to Judaism wider than we ever have before.

At the same time, we need to be cognizant of those who are alone and radically isolated during this pandemic. We need to focus more of our efforts on them. We need to work with them and their families to create lifelines of connection and community. In some cases, it may require working with them on technology. In other cases, it may be a return to the use of regular telephone contacts. I am not sure we can return to radio broadcasts, it is very expensive, but we need to think creatively about new and old ways to connect to everyone in our congregation. Truth to be told, we never really closed, we pivoted, and our congregation remains engaged, challenged, and fulfilled.

Finally, we need to remember that one day this pandemic will be over. It may feel like we are living in a zombie apocalypse and in many ways, we are, but it will end. Between now and then, it is incumbent upon us to keep our eternal light lit with the flame of faith and support our congregational efforts of sustained, online outreach. If we allow our eternal light to go out, it will be that much harder to reopen and discover our new post-COVID normal.

Together, we have a sacred covenant to support one another at this difficult time. We need each other in so many ways. Together, we will find new, unprecedented paths to care for and lift each other up. That process begins at home, our personal sanctuaries which we can fill with the light of life, love and the abiding faith that we are strong enough to get to the end of this pandemic intact and ready to embrace the next chapter in our lives. May you be blessed with heath, sustenance, and peace. Amen.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.


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