The Jewish heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic

By Rabbi Jeremy Litton

Unfortunately, a common theme in Jewish history is that during difficult times our connection to Judaism can be challenged. The Midrash teaches us that the Jewish people were able to hang on to their identity in Egypt only because they kept their language, dress and distinctively Jewish names. I imagine the times of the Hasmoneans and Hanukkah — a time when the practice of Jewish law and Torah study were banned under the penalty of death. When speaking with people who grew up in the Soviet Union, I was amazed by how little Judaism they were exposed to. While I was growing up in New York, celebrating and learning about Jewish holidays and customs that have entire scholarly works dedicated to them, a Jew was in Russia and never knew about Hanukkah or Rosh Hashanah. 

What preserves our Jewish people is our commitment to Jewish education and the passing down of our traditions. As we know from the Shema (Devarim/Deuteronomy, Chapter 6), it is every parent’s responsibility to teach the commandments to his/her children. According to some sources, even before this commandment was given, the Jewish people had already had a tradition of Jewish schooling. If we fast-forward a bit in history to a little more than 2,000 years ago, we have discussions of compulsory elementary schools instituted in every Jewish town. The Talmud discusses famous scholars and the schools where they were educated. 

I propose that the real Jewish heroes, as in the rest of Jewish history, are those who sacrificed and put the concept of being a Jew first. Going into this year, we did not know how many days of school would be in-person or virtual. You are my heroes…. You have stood up in the face of a challenge and prioritized the ingredient that allows our people to survive the test of time. I can only imagine how proud our ancestors would be.

As we celebrate Tu B’Shevat — the Jewish New Year for the trees — I am reminded that a tree is only as good as the way it has been nurtured. It also needs to have long and wide roots to remain grounded to survive the elements. Just as a stable and well-nurtured tree will guarantee fruits for generations, so will this education provide fruits in the form of a strong Jewish future. As it says in Proverbs 3:18, “For it is a tree of life for those who hold on to it, and those who draw near are fortunate.”

Rabbi Jeremy Litton is director of Jewish Life and Learning at Ann & Nate Levine Academy.

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