COVID-19 has brought our community together

Shabbat is the rhythmic heartbeat of our Jewish people. Each week, no matter any chaos that was, or any impending crisis ahead, Shabbat warmly greats us as a people. Her invitation is to contemplation. She begs us to slow down and reflect on our world, our life, our family and our priorities. She helps us put things into perspective, and her rhythmic rest brings relief, a chance to catch our breath — the very breath through which God instilled life into our otherwise earthly forms.
But the pause this past Shabbat (print deadlines being what they are, I sit to write this on Wednesday, March 18) was a far more pregnant pause than I can recall in my lifetime. That Shabbat, Parashat Ki Tisa (March 14) was Day One of a new reality of social distancing in the age of COVID-19. Friday, I left my office at the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, not knowing when I’d return next. The knowledge that my children would be remote schooling, while I somehow would miraculously balance my need to telework, was slowly seeping in. Synagogues, including DATA of Plano where our family prays, had just announced that they’d be closed, with people asked not to congregate. This would be the first week in which our synagogue community did not have a public Torah reading in shul. It was also the first time we experienced what it means to be a people socially distant yet determined not to be socially alone.
In subtle yet invaluable ways, we turned up for each other ahead of Shabbat in order to compensate for our inability to turn out for each other on Shabbat. Across Facebook, email, WhatsApp, phone calls and video conferences, words of hope and inspiration rang out, people solicited practical tasks they could do for one another. What could they drop off outside another’s door? What games, stories, and activities could they suggest to entertain and comfort our children and to give them a Shabbat to look forward to? We saw the best in people and their resilience in the face of the unknown.
That Shabbat, just five days ago, feels more like five months ago. The Federation convened a committee I sit on, the Health Crisis Management team made up of representatives from the range of agencies across our Jewish community. It has progressed rapidly through the “what if” stages of our strategic plan to creatively and pragmatically safeguard the most vulnerable segments of our community who must continue to receive the critical care, support, and provisions they require to weather the impact of social distancing.
In navigating through these unprecedented circumstances, I’ve witnessed the collective power of robust organizations, major givers, and empowered staff and stakeholders, to move the needle at the scale of community, overcoming great hurdles toward preserving the welfare of others through their personal sacrifice of time and resources.
Similarly, I’ve witnessed those with more moderate resources, people like small-business owners or strategically networked individuals, step up to help bridge the “last mile” when larger plans teetered on the edge of viability. This also often came with personal sacrifice.
Yet, as I look back again to that first Shabbat under quarantine, I come to recognize that the glue that binds us, ensuring that we will emerge from this as a better and more connected people, remains the countless unheralded ways in which we sacrifice of ourselves to support others in need. Our check-ins. Our supply runs (with outdoor drop-off delivery). Our cumulative donations toward critical nonprofits alongside our conscientious patronage and ongoing support of our community’s Jewish businesses, schools, agencies and congregations. Our shared memes to lighten the moments. Our Torah learning, by phone and by video, in chavrutot (pairs) and digital classrooms. Even our simple commiserations about the absurdity of it all. When we offer of ourselves to each other in all the little ways that make a difference on the scale of one to one, that conscientious sacrifice collectively moves mountains. It preserves us as a sacred community across distance and time.
The Talmud in Menachot (110a) notes that the scheduled Parasha for this edition of the TJP (Vayikra) includes the same tagline — “a sacrifice made by fire, it is a sweet savor unto the Lord” — about the offerings brought from large cattle, [moderate sized sheep and goats,] small birds, and the even smaller (and less costly) grain. Its conclusion is succinct and resonant. “This is to teach you that all these sacrifices are of equal importance provided that it is brought with the heart directed to heaven.”
We face a tremendous task now as a collective, to endure, and then to rebuild more resilient. To accomplish this, we must all, regardless of our means, direct our heart toward heaven thereby preserving our hope, and then we must give what we can of ourselves to others through all the various modes of care at our disposal. None of us can traverse this alone. Each of us has a critical role to play. Together despite our physical distance, our resounding chorus will ring out to heaven and to each other declaring with full confidence that WE are Here for You. Here for Good.
Rabbi Mordechai Harris is the executive director for the Center for Jewish Education and Rabbi in Residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas. He is a member of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Dallas and relocated to Dallas in August with his wife Nisa and their three girls, Pliyah, Aura and Emunah.

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