As I mentally prepared for our first full Shabbat back to services, I found myself wondering what the overriding metaphor of this moment would be, and the theme of returning from exile seemed most appropriate. Exile has been the predominant metaphor of Jewish existence throughout history – the Babylonian exile, the exile from the land after the destruction of the Second Temple, the exile of God in Jewish theology, exile from countries all around Europe throughout the Middle Ages due to expulsion after expulsion. The precariousness of Jewish life, the fragility of Jewish existence, has been a constant theme, until the modern age when Jewish communities finally felt established and safe. The COVID-19 pandemic upended that and once again made us all exiles, from our community, from each other and from our usual way of life. For perhaps the first time in our lives, we have had a taste of the trauma of exile.
The other day when my interfaith colleague Rev Harry Eberts from First Presbyterian and I spoke on the radio, we discussed chapter 3 of the book of Ezra, which describes the emotions of returning from exile. It describes the mixture of joy and sorrow expressed by the people. Joy is obvious – the return to community, the return to a physical minyan, the return to a sense of sacred place, to a physical centering of the community. But sorrow? Why would there be sorrow? In the Book of Ezra, that sorrow is due to people remembering the way things once were and feeling a sense of profound loss at what once was and can never again be. Some of our members still express that concern of the new way of life, and the impossibility of ever fully returning to what once was. More than that, though, there are some who feel loss in our community as we return to on-site services. Last Friday, for example, one member of our regular Zoom worship community shared an impassioned reflection of what they will lose when we return to physical services. For 65 weeks, we have held online services, most of which have been on Zoom. In those services, we have prayed facing each other – seeing each other’s faces, we have not had to look down at a siddur and then up again at the community because they were all together in one view. We formed an intimate community within the community, a close group of companions travelling through the pandemic together, helping each other through the darkest times on a weekly basis by studying together, praying together and socializing online together. My hope is that in the coming weeks, we can hold as much as possible onto that sense of intimacy socially and spiritually, together. For those currently following online, please know that even though you may not be physically with us, you are still an essential part of our community, and the journey we have gone on in the past 15 months will be one that I always treasure.
My mind therefore goes to the Torah portion of Nitzavim, to the covenant with God. Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai – you who are standing here this day before the Eternal your God. (Deut. 29:9). But who else does this passage specifically mention? V’lo itchem l’vad’chem anochi koret et hab’rit hazot v’et ha’alah hazot, ki et asher yeshno poh imanu omeid hayom lifnei Adonai eloheinu, ve’et asher eineinu poh imanu hayom. Not only with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath with those who are standing here with us today before the Eternal our God…. but also with those who are not here with us today. (Deut. 29:13-14). Jewish tradition has always understood “those who are not here with us today” as future generations from that Biblical moment, but today it means something else – it means those who are not able to be with us physically today because of their differing risk to catching COVID-19, even post-vaccination. The last 15 months has created two differing prayer groups under the umbrella of our Temple Beth Shalom community. One is comfortable with in-person services… indeed has been craving them and has found online worship isolating, the other is comfortable watching services in their PJs while sipping margaritas on the couch. And, of course, there are many people in-between, some of whom were planning on coming this evening but once we relocated indoors due to the heat realized that they could not attend.
When this pandemic started and we moved totally online, many Rabbis asked the question – how are we going to bring people back once the pandemic is over? The answer most people gave was that people will rush back because they’ll have so profoundly missed each other. Now I realize that the question assumed that the return to in-person services and the end of the pandemic would happen at the same time, but that’s clearly not the case. There is still a pandemic, we are still living in a pandemic, there are 100 new cases in our state every day, people in this state die from this pandemic every day. The pandemic is not over, and so we are here this evening not because it is over but because we are the lucky ones. Most of us present this evening are, on the whole, the healthy ones who have been vaccinated and for whom the vaccine is effective. We here today have now therefore been given an awesome, essential responsibility – to reach out to those who are not here physically with us today, to be compassionate with those present who do not want to hug or shake hands, to give space to those who still have much to fear from this pandemic. This moment has the potential for extreme compassion…. a demand for extreme compassion, a chance to see that not everyone is as lucky as we are, a chance for us to listen without judgment and with love to the many differing responses to this pandemic expressed in our community.
One place I saw that listening and love perfectly represented in our community over the last few months was in the Reopening Committee, the group of people who are responsible for us being able to even be here this evening. In that committee of deliberately widely varying opinions, members listened to each other, learned from each other, and compromised. These members meet for hours every week, and communicate via innumerable emails, to try to balance the widely varying needs of our community members. It is thanks to Wendy Steinberg, Marlene Schwalje, Debby Stein, Edward Borins, Carol Tyroler, and Robin Roffer, that this evening’s in-person service could happen at all. These people have exemplified what is now so essential in our community – listening and learning, compassion and compromise. These members heard all the voices in the community and responded appropriately. We owe them a debt of thanks.
This pandemic has been physically and psychologically exhausting for most, if not all, of us. We were confronted with immediate traumas – the sudden loss of physical presence of friends and family, the debilitating feeling of isolation, the realization of the precariousness of life. In time, other traumas came to us – the loss of trust of unknown others leading to the fear of the stranger, and even the shock of discovering that the social contract is less robust than we may have hoped and that some people will bend or break rules for their own benefit while ignoring the potential risk to others. Perhaps when we think of Ezra 3 and the people who wail at the loss of once was, we can empathize, and we need to be especially careful over the coming months to help each other come to terms with the trauma of the last 65 weeks.
And yet, we have remained connected. Many members have said that they have never felt so connected to our community as in the last year. Ecclesiastes says (3:4) there is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. It turns out that those are not differing times, but the same time, and that time is now. As much as we pay attention to the trauma of the last year, so, too, we have so much to celebrate from the past year. We celebrate the staff and volunteers of our community who have just kept going despite everything thrown at them, drawing on extraordinary reserves of energy, willpower and love to keep our community members connected. We ran online Torah breakfasts, book studies, and two Tikkunei Leil Shavuot, both of which ran long into the evening despite us all being oyzgezoomt. We created online services and meditation sessions, online (and, in the most urgent of cases, in-person) pastoral visits. The Preschool, the Religious School and the Youth Group continued. We ran online events, including speakers from all around the world. We spent almost every evening one week in a virtual tour of Israel. We organized It Takes A Village to connect younger and older members of our community and to support kids through the long summer. We held weekly online Havdalah services. We sent out a reflection on a mishnah from Pirke Avot every day for months. We started the Pre-Shabbat messages on YouTube. We ran a Racial Justice Circle and connected with other events around the world that challenged and empowered us. Our members created stunning liturgy for the unique High Holy Day services and for our Pesach S’darim, which were watched by hundreds more people than ever before. We maintained a presence in the Interfaith Leadership Alliance, helping create memorials for New Mexicans who had died from the pandemic. We joined with the Jewish Federation in their cross-communal rituals for Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzma’ut. We restarted the Conversion Course, now attended by more people than in the last seven years at least. We brought in more new members. We even had a New Member Shabbat that was catered in the new members’ homes. We held the community’s first totally online bar mitzvah ceremony. We finished an extraordinary Strategic Plan and started implementing it by creating new committees and by running a hiring process which has resulted in our hiring of the wonderful Cantor Lianna Mendelson as our new Cantor-Educator. We have done all this and so, so much more. And throughout these last 65 weeks, whenever one of us faltered from exhaustion or sickness, someone else from the community would step up instantly. Aaron Wolf and Fred Milder stepped in to lead services, Scott Nadler, Dana Densmore, Ziva Gunther and Rachel Kowarski led Torah study, Ellen Zieselman stepped in to lead the Religious School, Meredith Brown stepped in to lead the B’nei Mitzvah program. Countless members provided meals to those in need, especially to those suffering from short- and long-term effects of COVID-19. These are some of the many examples of communal love and support that we have seen repeatedly throughout this pandemic. What we have learned since March of 2020 is that a pandemic is like an amplifier, bringing out everything that is truly within, so angry people became angrier but loving people became more loving. Our Caring Congregation therefore became more Caring. Our supportive extended family became even more supportive. We were tested hard by this pandemic, but we did not crack… if anything, we became stronger and even more extraordinary. Tonight, we celebrate the strength of our community to endure, and we commit ourselves to taking care of everyone in our community in the coming weeks and months as well.
So, whether or not everyone in our community could join us physically today, our being able to reopen services on-site is miraculous. When we give praise and thanks today, we do so not just for the wonder of our community, but also for the wonder of the healthcare professionals and all the essential workers who have sustained us and brought us to this occasion. We give thanks for the technology that has enabled us to stay connected through this time, and we excuse the technical glitches as moments of normalcy in a sea of miracles. We give thanks to the staff in our community, those who started the pandemic with us and who are no longer working with us, as well as those who are still with us. Their dedication to this community has been extraordinary. We also give thanks to those who have supported the staff of the Temple – the volunteers, Board members, and Exec members who have not only held us through this most extraordinary time but who have helped to develop our community at the same time. One of those people I must single out in particular – our Temple President Michelle LaFlamme-Childs - who has been a rock of support, a calming voice, an empowering leader, a confidante and friend. The members of our community will never know how much Michelle has done over the last year for us all, but I promise you it has been absolutely mind-blowing.
Speaking personally, there were times in the last six months in particular when the burden of this pandemic was too great, when the weight of the community combined with personal challenges was too much. It was during those times that, like Aaron and Hur in the book of Exodus (17:12), I was supported the most by this loving, extended family of Temple Beth Shalom, the rock of stability and love upon which I could rest and be refreshed. The members of this community held my arms up high when I did not know where to find the strength to do so. As we write the history of our Temple, I truly hope that this chapter is remembered as one of connection, of support and of love because that has certainly been my experience of it.
Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulchem – You who stand here with us today, either physically in our Sanctuary or with us online – you now look out at a land flowing with milk and honey… you now see in front of you a time of opportunity and reconnection. This is the moment – “this is the hour of change.” (q. Leah Goldberg, p.31, Mishkan T’fillah). This is the moment of celebrating how lucky we are, to be members of our wonderful community at this unique time in history. This is also the moment that makes demands of us, to reach out, to care for those still in need in our community. It is, therefore, a moment of celebration and of simultaneous responsibility. It is an awesome moment and it is a moment that I know we will embrace.
For over a year, we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 23:4) and God and community have been with us. May God continue to guide our steps forward, guide our community forward. May God comfort us as we confront the trauma of exile, inspire us to reach out to take care of those not here with us today, and be with us as we celebrate our extraordinary return to our extraordinary community, and let us say, Amen.