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Face to Face: The Way Jews Were Meant to Be

After many months of seeing faces partially covered by masks, we now know this to be true. When we see each other’s faces, finally, it is so much more than simply what we see with our eyes.
[additional-authors]
December 2, 2021
Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

It was a warm, dark night as I walked up the stairs to a beautiful outdoor deck overlooking the lights of downtown Los Angeles, toward the lights and the music—the perfect background to the main sound, the hum of unmuffled voices. People from the school were excited to see each other, truly see one another, not masked in the carpool line—many for the first time in more than a year. Hundreds of people were gathered. All have presented not only proof of vaccination, but also negative COVID test results taken that day. (Test kits were sent home in advance of the event.) This was an unfortunate added expense—and one many deemed unnecessary—but can you really put a price on seeing people’s whole faces? 

During a recent Shabbat service, our new Senior Rabbi Mari Chernow pointed out the recurring theme of the panim, or face, in Jacob’s story. She concluded that the panim represents more than just the physical face. After many months of seeing faces partially covered by masks, we now know this to be true. When we see each other’s faces, finally, it is so much more than simply what we see with our eyes.

The challenge of this current moment of COVID is the gray area—the varying levels of comfort, the way nothing feels totally normal with masks and nothing feels completely comfortable without them.   Our committee wholeheartedly believed that removing this barrier was integral to the success of our first large in-person event. Operating according to the most COVID-careful common denominator allowed everyone to feel safe while participating. In fact, over 80% of the parents in our school attended. 

Two weeks later and the community is still buzzing. Even after the emails stopped coming in, moms at dance class marvel about what a thrill it was to be together; parents on the soccer field remark about how badly we all needed that night, how long it had been. The night was successful from every angle. It was a community builder; plans made for playdates and business lunches and date nights, numbers and jokes exchanged. It was also a profitable fundraiser, proceeds hitting target goals and gifts continuing to pour in following the event.

Any night out is better than another night of sweatpants and Netflix. Perhaps many of us are not even aware of just how badly we need to be back together—even if it is not without challenges or flaws.

Another notable side effect of the event? We haven’t heard any complaints—really and truly, not one. Do I think this is because the evening was exceptional? Yes. But there is also a new appreciation for the challenges that go into executing such an evening. And any night out is better than another night of sweatpants and Netflix. Perhaps many of us are not even aware of just how badly we need to be back together—even if it is not without challenges or flaws.

What luxuries we have in Southern California! Not only the weather, but the sheer amount of camera and film expertise. Providing COVID-safe Jewish experiences to those in person and at home is possible. Parking lot Shabbat is just the beginning. Our sports field doubled as our sanctuary for a beautiful outdoor Simchat Torah celebration. Torah scrolls covered on folding tables were lit by our cell phone flashlights. Who would have thought we would be running High Holy Day worship plans past a team of doctors and film directors and camera operators? These extra efforts clearly paid off. Hundreds joined safely in person with masks and proof of vaccination, and hundreds more joined remotely and received a spiritual experience from home. We have also had success with outdoor yoga led by our multi-talented Executive Director Zach Lasker, in our courtyard, while a small, modified “Parent and Me” class happens in the next space. It’s not perfect, considering the roaring traffic in the background, but it’s perfect for now. 

We proved to ourselves, and maybe to a few others, that we are ready. Again, it is not perfect, and requires mental, financial and medical gymnastics as well as a bit of suspension of fundraising and event planning norms, but it is time to slowly bring our people together. In person. It is time to do Jewish the way Jewish was intended, in community—panim el panim.


Stephanie Bressler is the VP of Development on the Board of Trustees of Temple Israel of Hollywood, and works in Advancement for PJ Library and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation. 

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