Just over half a year has now passed since the start of the Jewish year, whose high holidays are also known as the Days of Awe.
One of the climactic sections of those most sacred days’ liturgy relates:
“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: how many will pass away and how many will be born, who will live and who will die… who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague… who will be serene and who will be tormented, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”
Barely into a new decade – 2020 on the civil calendar, 5780 for Jews – we now approach another apex of the Jewish year, Passover, in decidedly unfamiliar circumstances.
During our commemoration of the exodus, we recall the ten plagues that befell Egypt before it set free its enslaved Jews – including, ultimately, the plague of the Egyptian firstborn, which from Pharaoh’s throne to the humblest of citizens prompted “a great outcry in Egypt, for there was no home in which there was no dead.”
Now, our society faces a new plague – a pandemic, one to which none are immune.
Passover has come to exemplify the coming together of the most basic unit of human bonds – the family – but a pandemic is set apart in its rupture of the social fabric, even at the individual family level. This year, many will be forced to hold their Seder in solitude.
In terms of Jewish religious life, COVID-19 has quickly spurred the most significant disruption (with the possible exception, in Israel, of the 1973 Yom Kippur War) since the end of the Holocaust, whose 75th anniversary will soon take place.
In the global scope of the current outbreak, the impairing of public religious practice not only hearkens back to the Spanish flu of a century ago but may be, plainly, unprecedented.
Preempting the intensive spring cleaning that is customary before Passover – reflecting what should be a deep cleansing also of the soul – we now adjust to hyper-hygienic habits meant to ward off the novel coronavirus.
For many observant Jews, this moment has yielded a first-ever experience of inability to worship communally in a synagogue, particularly on a major holiday. This alone can be traumatic.
Of course, though, religion is just one of the virtually limitless aspects of life affected by a threat that is both invisible and insidious.
During the Seder this year, perhaps there will be extra resonance in the tradition of shedding wine drops from our glasses in a gesture of compassion – even amid celebration – for Egyptians who suffered in the freeing of the Jews from their yoke.
Next week, we can have in mind all those who now suffer. We can think of both the young and old, those living alone and with others, those in hospitals and those without access to hospitals, those with preexisting illness and with brand-new illness, those unemployed and those who will be unemployed, those stuck at home, those without a home, the bereaved and those on the front lines.
This is simpler to do meaningfully now – because “they” could easily become “we.”
After entering a period during which everything from food and toilet paper to the wellbeing of public officials and healthcare workers has been called into question, when we recite the Seder song “Dayenu” – giving praise for each of the blessings bestowed upon us – the looming hardship will make it easier not to take those blessings for granted.
How much we would now value the ability to shake a hand, give a hug, have a guest, go to the market, press an elevator button, receive a package or rub our own eyes in the morning without weighty existential calculations!
If nothing else, in an age when many have fixated on individualism, a pandemic forces a deeper appreciation of community and companionship, collective action and solidarity. A pandemic brings sharp urgency to the words from Ethics of the Fathers, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”
Passover reminds us of a central motif of the Jewish, and human, saga: redemption – but one can only be redeemed from some sort of affliction. Passover exults in liberation, but it mustn’t be forgotten that the sudden and dramatic exodus from Egypt followed hundreds of years of abject torment.
In Judaism, meaning can be found even in its ordering of the day: “there was evening, [then] there was morning.” Light follows, and is given its very meaning by, darkness.
Until morning breaks, Jews’ prayers take the form of appreciation of all that we do still have, of appeals for deliverance and of stubborn confidence that deliverance will come: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Indeed, two thousand years after dispersion from it, Jews in our time began to be restored to the city at the heart of our collective consciousness.
Soberingly, we are taught that not only individuals, but also nations, are subject to vulnerability, to consequences and the shifting tides of history. In these days of awe, we can recall that none of history’s greatest empires have reigned supreme permanently; most are now not in existence. Only time will tell how the world is altered, even reordered, by a storm as substantial as the current one.
Nonetheless, in this month of salvation, we renew our faith in its arrival again.
When the children of Israel settled in Egypt, the patriarch Jacob – alternately known as Israel – was told, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid of descending to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up.” Tribulation was part of the journey, part of the reality, as much as that can thoroughly elude our will and our grasp.
“‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts,’” the prophet Isaiah relays. But he goes on: “So says the Lord, ‘Keep justice and practice righteousness, for My salvation is near to come, and My benevolence to be revealed.’”
For the first time in most of our lives, many of us are now confined, limited in our mobility, our sense of mastery over our existence. In the diminishing of that unbridled freedom – certainly of being carefree – let us do what we can to support each other, and to take comfort in the promise of return to a more cherished liberty.
Read David's expert analysis at the Times of Israel.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
As millions worldwide are in lockdown due to the current health crisis, it seems hard to believe it was only a month ago that Carnival season was in full swing everywhere from Europe and Asia to Africa and the Americas. Zooming in on parts of Europe, what should have been an otherwise joyous occasion turned out to be a festering den of anti-Semitic displays. Photos out of Belgium and Spain have made their way into international media, depicting Jews as insects and trivializing Holocaust survivors. It is worth looking at these highly troubling incidents in historical context. What is a nearly 1000 year old tradition of celebration has brought forward unexpected challenges to our ethics and morals today. Carnival began as a tradition in the Middle-Ages, as a moment of indulgence before Lent. Parades, extravagant costumes and excessive consumption of food and drink were all typical elements. In parallel to the joyous spirit, an anti-Semitic streak of satirizing - and in many cases abusing - the Jewish community developed as well, much in the spirit of the widespread Jew hatred of the time. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, in Rome, rabbis in the Jewish Ghetto were marched through the city streets and mistreated by the crowds. In a letter by the Jewish community of Rome, Pope Gregory XVI was asked to stop this annual march. He is said to have replied: “It is not opportune to make any innovation.”
Indeed, this seems to still resonate. Between Feb. 21st and 23rd this year, the carnival in the Belgian town of Aalst was taking place, sparking outrage after showcasing anti- Semitic imagery akin to that seen in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. The carnival’s organizers distributed many so-called “rabbi kits,” encouraging attendees to wear hooked noses, sidelocks and black hats. Flocks of attendees dressed in costumes depicting Jews as vermin, the mocking of circumcision, the depiction of Jews controlling international institutions and the ridicule of Jewish religious sites were center stage within the parade. The 2020 edition of the Aalst carnival came on the back of harsh global condemnation following the incendiary edition of 2019, where a float depicting ultra-Orthodox Jews surrounded by bags of money and rats led to the delisting of the festival from the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Only days after the Aalst festival, Carnival arrived in the Spanish region of Castilla-La Mancha, in the small town of Campo de Criptana. There, a troupe of dancers dressed as Nazi officers and concentration camp prisoners were accompanied by a float featuring a menorah and two crematorium chimneys. The Spanish case sent a chill up the spine of the Jewish community - not only was the float in Spain shocking, but, following the displays in Aalst, it painted a picture that such displays were becoming commonplace.
It’s worth noting that – turns out - the circumstances of the two carnivals were significantly different. In Spain, both authorities and the carnival were quick to recognize the inappropriate nature of the performance. A statement was swiftly put out by the local municipality condemning the troupe and the association responsible for the float declared that it had failed to deliver “the message of awareness and respect that we had wanted to transmit.” Indeed, it would appear that the Criptana carnival wished to pay tribute to the victims of the Holocaust, albeit in a vehemently misguided way. That might not be much consolation, but it stands in stark contrast with the attitude seen in Aalst, where the carnival organizers, alongside the authorities, were purposefully trying to provoke and incite the reaction of the Jewish community as a sort of badge of honor to the carnival’s unapologetic spirit.
While the underlying perspective of the two events differs, there are common learning points – and as we look towards next year’s Carnival season, it is them we should be focusing on:
As we expect next year’s Carnival season – that will hopefully find us in calmer times than we are living through today - we must work to put in place all these protections to ensure the festival is not about marginalization and stigmatization, but about celebration and inclusion.
Alina Bricman is the Director of EU Affairs at B’nai B’rith International. She formerly served as president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) from 2017 to 2019 and worked for the Representation of the European Commission in Romania and for the Median Research Centre, a Romanian civil society NGO focused on civil engagement and combating xenophobia. She studied political science at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest and at the Central European University in Budapest.
What a difference a month makes. A month ago, my colleagues and I were going up to Capitol Hill to talk with congressional offices about the fiscal year 2021 budget. It was that time of the year again, when organizations like B’nai B’rith advocate to Congress about funding for affordable housing for the upcoming fiscal year. As always, these types of meetings were scheduled to take place over the next couple months. Unfortunately, as everyone knows by now, the world looks very different because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Offices have been closed, meetings have become phone conferences, schools have shut their doors and cities and states have installed massive restrictions on travel. Working from home has caused me and countless other people to go a little stir crazy. However, this might give everyone a sense as to what too many seniors throughout our country experience every day. According to the University of Michigan and the American Association of Retired People (AARP), one-third of older Americans (ages 50 to 80) suffer from loneliness.
Obviously, given the new guidelines from the Center for Disease Control regarding social distancing, problems associated with social isolation are only going to get worse. Social isolation amongst seniors can have negative impacts on their health. For example, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, social isolation can lead to an increase risk of heart disease, depression and mortality.
So how can we encourage older Americans to say connected with family and friends while still staying at home? Seniors who have the technology can stay in touch by using video chatting services, social media, phones and texting. Alan Teo, a physician teacher at the Oregon Health and Science University’s School of Medicine, reported that video chatting helps fight depression associated with social isolation in adults 60 and older. According to the data, video chatting (compared to instant messaging, social media and email) is the most effective form of communication to fend off depression.
In addition, seniors can communicate with other people by participating in online faith-based services. For instance, houses of worship have moved their services to the web so everyone can still participate. This a great way for seniors to stay connected with their community without having to leave their home.
It’s not just social isolation that’s a problem for seniors during this pandemic. The most pressing issue is how we can keep our older Americans safe. Seniors are particularly susceptible to COVID-19, so guarding their safety is incredibly important. B’nai B’rith, as a national sponsor of low-income senior housing across the country, is very aware that precautions need to be taken to ensure our resident’s well-being. Our sponsored buildings have already cancelled community events like educational classes and parties in the building. In addition, hand sanitizers have been placed throughout the properties and building staff have been given instructions on how to ensure their own safety, as well as the residents. Furthermore, buildings have encouraged everyone to practice “social distancing”.
At the B’nai B’rith Goldberg Towers and the Pasadena Interfaith Manor in Houston, beginning in mid-March staff contacted all their residents, making sure they had food and medicine to last through the end of the month. Additionally, building staff offered to help those residents who were unable to get their food and medications. Also, there are plans in place to regularly check-in on residents through April. Lastly, staff has been instructed to wear hand gloves when entering a resident’s apartment to ensure the safety of everyone.
Almost everyone either has an older adult in their family or part of their social circle. With COVID-19 sadly having no end in sight, now would be a great time to contact the seniors in your life. Even if they don’t need help getting life’s necessities, video chatting or talking on the phone for a few minutes could go a long way in their physical and mental well-being.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
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