Toward the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic surge in Los Angeles, local rabbis made the incredibly difficult decision to close most synagogues, day schools and other Jewish institutions. This was a very painful decision, guided by the Torah’s imperative to protect life and avoid danger. It has been profoundly challenging for our community, requiring sacrifices large and small. But it also has made a significant impact in protecting us and flattening the curve in our neighborhoods.
Now that we are two months into this crisis and protesters are demanding a return to “normal” life, it is understandable that local Jewish community members would like our institutions to begin functioning again as well. People miss their friends, their communal routines and the ability to live a full Jewish life. Kids have missed out on bar/bat mitzvahs and high school graduations. Extended families haven’t spent quality time together, not to mention missing out on Passover seders at the same table.
Despite the desire to reclaim our old lives and routines, many local rabbinic leaders continue to appeal for caution. The Orthodox Union, Rabbinic Council of America and Agudat Yisrael recently issued detailed guidelines declaring we are not ready to open Jewish community institutions yet, and that we will have to do so slowly and gradually, following many careful precautionary measures.
As a chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, I have experienced firsthand how hard our Jewish community has been hit.
I understand this can be very frustrating for many of us, but our rabbis have good reason for caution. I know because I have seen the frontlines of this pandemic. As a chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, I have experienced firsthand how hard our Jewish community has been hit. At the beginning of this crisis, I encountered too many seriously ill Jewish patients in our intensive care units. Many were tremendously ill for weeks, dependent on ventilators and an arsenal of drugs to breathe. Some died. Seeing this drove home the gravity of the situation for me. After physical distancing took hold across our Jewish community, the numbers of Jewish patients in our ICUs significantly declined.
As chaplains in the hospital, even as we remain on the frontlines, we have similarly had to develop new and creative ways of providing spiritual support, whether by phone, standing outside the doors of patients’ rooms, hanging signs in patients’ windows, or trying to connect to patients while our faces are mostly covered.
But not all of us take this level of precaution. We know the communal, close-knit and multigenerational nature of our interconnected community puts us at higher risk for rapid disease transmission. We frequently come together in the community for lifecycle events and worship. And that is why I have been encouraging, even pleading, with rabbis to beg our community to be extra cautious. In the Jewish community, we must be even more strict about physical distancing guidelines than what we are told by local government authorities. We all are responsible for one another. We have come this far and made an impact. It still is too soon to let up.
“As we have learned, the consequences of not taking physical distancing seriously can be a matter of life and death for too many.”
This nightmare is going to end. Things are going to get better. It is not only up to the rabbis. As we do every day in the hospital, we, as a community, need to plan carefully, constantly reevaluate changing data and involve diverse, interdisciplinary groups of communal, medical and public health experts in our decision-making. We all must do whatever we can to minimize the impact and to facilitate a return to normalcy. Doing this will enable us to return to our jobs again and to flourish spirituality as well. At the same time, we must ensure we simply survive physically. As we have learned, the consequences of not taking physical distancing seriously can be a matter of life and death for too many.
With the holiday of Shavuot fast approaching at the end of May, and with the High Holidays almost around the corner, we need to find creative ways to remain engaged in our Jewish lives, even if it won’t all be in person. Together, we can take the precautions that enable us to recharge this part of our lives and begin to return to some sort of normalcy. May it be soon.
Jason Weiner is the senior rabbi and director of the Cedars-Sinai Spiritual Care Department.