Months ago, Jewish Pittsburgh was anticipating a different sort of High Holiday season. With vaccinations increasing and COVID cases declining, there was hope that the Days of Awe would resemble 2019 more than 2020 — packed pews, various youth activities and opportunities for socialization. But then the number of COVID transmissions in Allegheny County rose again.
How do we reconcile the New Year with a continuing pandemic? Local spiritual leaders have some suggestions.
This particular Rosh Hashanah marks a special period on the Jewish calendar, as it is a shmita, or sabbatical, year, according to Rabbi Sruly Altein, of Chabad of Squirrel Hill.
Shmita is the seventh year in a biblically decreed agricultural cycle, one characteristic of which is that Israel-based lands are left to lie fallow.
When it comes to the pandemic, “we thought that we were out of COVID, but yet again we feel as though we’re in a never-ending cycle,” Altein said. Rosh Hashanah, and specifically the welcoming of shmita, represents a perfect time to break from the cycle, and to “stop and think about, how am I going to make the future better?”
“The High Holidays are always an opportunity to stop and reflect,” said Rabbi Amy Bardack, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s director of Jewish life and learning. Because it is a “restart of the new year,” and a time to “get in touch with our mortality,” the High Holidays are an appropriate time to ask “If this is the life I want to be living — should I be living?”
Rabbi Aaron Bisno, of Rodef Shalom Congregation, said he plans on addressing the subject of mortality during Rosh Hashanah.
“COVID exposed and accelerated what was already true for us.”
“COVID exposed and accelerated what was already true for us,” Bisno said. “Our mortality is not the emergency, and therefore we have an opportunity in light of current reality to return to the essential questions about what we do with the limited time we have and how we make that time meaningful.”
As the High Holidays approach, Kohenet Keshira haLev Fife, of Kesher Pittsburgh, hopes people focus on God’s creative patterns. Within the Book of Genesis, God deliberately separated each day, one from the next, and paused to see that “it was good.” There is value in similarly pacing one’s self, Fife said.
For example, beyond fasting on Yom Kippur, that day is also about “slowing down to give ourselves time to reflect, to check in with ourselves, to check in with one another so that we can be intentional, and loving and caring in what we create for the year ahead,” she said.
Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman, of Brit Shalom in Erie as well as Derekh at Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill, said he hopes people spend more time in the coming weeks focusing on “radical compassion,” or “chesed.”
“One of the things that’s really hard at this point in the pandemic is to feel compassion for our fellow human beings,” he said. “So many of us are totally exhausted, it’s not easy. But we have to keep dipping into that well.”
“Be more compassionate and let the chips fall where they may.”
For Goodman, radical compassion is particularly applicable to COVID-19.
“There are a lot of unvaccinated Americans, and a lot of Americans who are angry at the unvaccinated Americans, and one of the things that has come out of studies recently is that
castigating people, and screaming at them or punishing them, doesn’t convince them to get vaccinated,” he said. “It takes conversations and education and one-on-one time that demonstrates that you have compassion and care about them.”
This practice hits at the “core of our humanity,” Goodman added. “Be more compassionate and let the chips fall where they may.”
Cantor Rena Shapiro, spiritual leader at Beth Samuel Jewish Center in Ambridge, agreed that the upcoming holidays are a perfect opportunity for reconnection. The pandemic remains “the elephant in the room,” Shapiro said, but it doesn’t mean that “we can’t learn from our friends and family, and even from our matriarchs and patriarchs,” as they all “encountered and dealt with challenges.”
“Our liturgy tells us to return, and return doesn’t necessarily mean to the good old days,” she said. “It really means to return to God, to what we know in our hearts is right, to exercise faith over fear and peace over panic.”
Rabbi Doniel Schon, associate dean of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center, said the coming weeks offer an opportunity to renew relationships.
“COVID has been a difficult time for everyone,” he said. “Naturally, things can get us down and can detract from our personal relationships or the relationship [between] man and God. We can take this time to rise above it.”
“…COVID can’t be an excuse.”
People were hoping that by this time the pandemic would be over, and “now we realize it’s a longer-term thing,” Schon continued. For that reason, “we can’t chalk everything up to COVID anymore. We realize that COVID can’t be an excuse. We have to rise above, and even though it’s more difficult, we need to make those adjustments.”
Rabbi Barbara Symons, of Temple David in Monroeville, said her High Holiday sermons will cover a broad range of topics related to Israel, including the diversity of people who have a relationship with the Jewish state. She also plans to speak about repentance, as well as reparations.
At this time of year, she said, everyone needs to think about each other. This is not the season to “allow people to be invisible.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.