Schools are closing, synagogues are altering service schedules or outright cancelling, funerals are limiting numbers to just a minyan. For those of us embedded in lived Jewish community, this moment of social distancing is a rupture to our system of intentional community. But, if we view them right, engaging with the system of mitzvot which draw us into community — what Maimonides prescribes in the Mishneh Torah as the fullest expression of “acts of loving kindness,” like visiting the sick and comforting mourners — has been practice for moments like these, when we need community the most.
As social distancing becomes the norm and as more people enter quarantine is exactly the time to ramp up our efforts to ensure vibrant Jewish community. I have been thinking a lot about what I will need as a husband, father and rabbi — what my community will need and what I will have to give. It is counterintuitive but clear that if we are going to get through this social distancing, we are going to have to do it together.
This is the time when our social networks are going to have to be real social networks and not simply soapboxes for shouting into the wind. All the rabbis I know work tirelessly to visit the sick and make sure the needy in their community are taken care of. In this moment of social contraction, as work is slowing and kids are home, people looking for ways to pass the time can aid in the holy work of ensuring each member of our community is seen and heard.
Here are some ideas to make social distancing a moment of real Jewish community
1. Kids home from school can virtually visit the sick.
They can FaceTime with elders of their community, they can make cards, they can make videos where they sing and dance. Rabbis have lists of people who need joy in their life; all the people who used to be sick, are still sick and we are going to have more people in quarantine before this gets better. This should be a moment for connection!
2. Remember phone trees?
Communities should make phone or text trees, where everyone in the community is asked to phone or text five people a day, simply to check in, to see if anyone needs anything, to provide an outlet and a reminder that everyone is being thought of. Create the community WhatsApp groups we should have already developed. Parents are going to need serious mental support to get through weeks of school closure. People need to know others are going through similar challenges. People need places to ask for help. Let’s create the networks we wish we always had.
3. Turn yourself into a delivery service.
Social distancing does not mean quarantine. And there are plenty of people who will need goods delivered to them. This is a time to make sure everyone in our communities has the food and supplies they need, and to mobilize those who can deliver goods.
4. Rethink rituals.
Ritual has always been something that helps us transcend time and space. However, Jewish ritual life assumes some range of communal practice. The technology that connects us today is a powerful tool for us to reimagine communal ritual. We need to think about how to use this technology in synchronous and asynchronous ways. Yes, we can livestream services, but more so, we need to think how to take our rituals at home and reimagine them as communal.
5. Learn some Torah.
Learn Torah with friends on the phone, on video, on WhatsApp. Rabbis, maharats, cantors, teachers — take the leap and put yourself on Facebook Live, YouTube or make a podcast. This is the time to fill the world with Torah!
6. Embody your Jewish practice.
Jewish life is not just communal and cerebral, it is also embodied. This is the time to clean for Passover, to draw posters for the Sukkah, to learn how to tie tzitzit or write Hebrew calligraphy, to make an Omer calendar or Rosh Hashanah cards.
7. Get to know your neighbors.
I know my Jewish community better than my most immediate neighbors. This is the time — from a distance — to check in and be aware of what my closest neighbors, from all communities, need. If this virus has taught us anything, it’s that we are all deeply connected.
8. Ask for help!
This is going to be scary and lonely. We need to commit to be charitable in listening to others’ needs and open our hearts.
Lived Jewish community is thick. We eat meals together, visit each other in sickness, sit together in sorrow and laugh together in joy. All of these practices are in service of illuminating the divine light in the world while bestowing dignity on one another. And all of these practices have been practice for this very odd moment, when we have to contract from the world. Perhaps we can fill the space left behind with these acts of kindness, so that we may radiate God’s divine light.