A Jewish Dystopian View of the Future
For me it has been almost six months of Covid lockdown and as Michelle Obama pointed out it is starting to get depressing. Reading on from here will probably not make that feeling go away.
At the beginning it was a little frightening given how little we knew about the virus, but truth be told it was also a little exciting. We were all sharing in a high stakes game, but we were also all in it together. For those of us living in Florida it was analogous to a hurricane, whose cone of possibility had us right in the middle. A direct hit was not a certainty but there was a strong possibility of some damage coming our way, so we had to prepare. Neighbors who never say more than hi, would be outside putting up shutters and preparing generators and offering help and good wishes. The run on the supermarkets and gas stations was a shared experience filled with the thrill of victory, i.e. a full gas tank, plenty of snacks and beers, and the agony of defeat, i.e. empty shelves of water and canned goods.
Some people hunkered down by themselves with their loved ones, flashlights nearby, while others rode out the storm by joining friends in a macabre hurricane party. The storm was coming but if the roof staid on then the horror would end in a day and the biggest inconvenience would be no electric, no tv, no air conditioning for a few days, and then the lights would came on and it was back to normal.
There was a little of that adventure and excitement in the beginning of Covid. There was the great toilet paper run, the great Clorox find, the new Netflix shows to watch. There was time for cooking and baking. Sourdough baking was a new Olympic sport.
Then the deaths started to come. Over 1000 deaths a day in New York. Not enough ventilators, bodies backing up in funeral homes and the bloom was off the rose, at least for New York and all of us related to New Yorkers. (If you are Jewish that means all of us.)
But at least we were ok in Florida and Georgia and California until we were not. It was not even a little fun anymore, but there was hope. Many laboratories were working on vaccines. We will have one or more available by the first of the year or earlier if you listen to the president. Of course, if that is the source of your optimism you have an even bigger problem.
Now the first of the year is not that far away. We have diversions until then. We have the High Holy Days in September, the elections in November, the fight over who won the elections in December, and then we have a vaccine and we return to our old version of “normal”.
Or do we?
The first effective polio vaccine was developed in 1952 by Jonas Salk, but it required years of testing. In 1954 with the help of a Canadian lab that mass produced the vaccine, it was ready for wide testing. In February of 1954, a large-scale test began. On April 12, 1955, the results were reported with very good results. In 1955 the US started mass immunization of children, but in April 1955 reports started to appear of patients who contracted paralytic polio a week after being vaccinated with vaccines made by the Cutter Pharmaceutical Company. Their vaccine was pulled, but 250 children came down with paralytic polio. Then some vaccines from Wyeth also paralyzed or killed some children. It seems that over 100,000 doses had not properly been inactivated and infected children. Many people lost confidence in the vaccine and many parents chose not to inoculate their children.
Albert Sabin developed an oral vaccine that eventually proved effective and safe against all three types of polio. In 1961 it was released for wide commercial use.
From 1952 it took 9 long years until a vaccine for all types of polio was developed that was safe, effective, and trusted by most of the population.
Why do we assume that the first vaccine to be approved will automatically prove to be the magic bullet that will immunize at least 50% of the population and then perhaps bring us to herd immunity?
Why do we assume that all people will take the vaccine before they know the full extent of the complications let alone universal efficacy?
While our scientific technology is much more developed than the 1950’s there is no guarantee that we will find a vaccine that will be effective, safe and trusted and then taken by enough people to stop the spread of the virus.
What if we go another year at least of total lockdown, not an unreasonable question given the history of new vaccines? What does at least 2 years of lockdown really mean to us?
We have already experienced a Passover with 1 and 2-person seders. What happens to us all if we go through it again? No friends, no family, no children to ask the four questions and no children to search for the afikomen? If there is any truth to the expression, “use it or lose it”, where is the future, the continuity, the “Ledor Vador” moment we all crave? Where will the memories come from like the older ones so many of us have of family at the seder? What happens when we get used to seders without family and friends?
Sunday I attended my granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah on Zoom. It was supposed to be this coming Saturday in Surfside Florida. All my children and their spouses, and my 7 grandchildren were all going to gather for a Shabbat service and celebration. The kids from Beersheba, Riverdale, and Atlanta would have seen each other, hugged, kissed, played, fought, cried, kissed, and made up in person. Their bonds as cousins would have been strengthened. My children would have stayed up at night drinking, talking, joking, making fun of their parents as adult children are wont to do, and I could have looked on from a distance and qvelled to see the future of my line staying close to each other, and knowing that when my time came to exit I had left behind a band that would stay close and that I would be proud of.
Instead we were all over the world, little heads in little boxes listening to my granddaughter beautifully chant a blessing free haftorah while the rest of us were on mute. Name the last Jewish service that Jews staid mute all the way through. Yes, it was the best we could do, and it was wonderful for what it was, but we all wanted more.
What is the long-term effect on the family if we do not see each other for a few years? I promised the Bat Mitzvah girl a tour in Israel with Zaydee of whatever she wanted to see and do, but as I said to her in my unmuted speech, I hope we weren’t going to have to combine it as a sweet sixteen-Bat Mitzvah tour.
We are preparing for the High Holy Days. This is not just the Jewish New Year. This is the annual recharge event for the Jewish community. It is when shules that are mostly empty during the Shabbat services are often overflowing with people. This is when we gather in numbers to affirm and revitalize our commitment to each other and to God as Jews. This is an annual event that says, when we are together, we are not a small minority. This is when the batteries of the Jewish people are recharged, and we hope that charge lasts us until the next year.
How many synagogues will have live in person full shules for the High Holy Days?
We will survive this year. We will remember last year, but will the batteries get fully recharged by muted zoom services? Will we feel the majesty of the day when it all comes out of a computer screen? Will we feel the connectiveness of the Jewish people to each other when we are one or two people alone in the house?
Fast forward to a year from now. How many shules will be left to open for zoom services for 5802? Synagogues around the country were not doing well before Covid. I believe that a quarter to a half of all non-Orthodox synagogues will be gone. Who wants to join a synagogue and pay the dues it costs to maintain it, if the closest we get to the building is a computer projection?
If many of the small, struggling shules merge together we will have 25% less shules but one third will be new small struggling shules. If merger is not a possibility, then as many as half of these synagogues may close. If I can’t send my kids to Hebrew school, if I can’t schedule a shabbat morning for my child’s Bar/ Bat Mitzvah, if the only High Holy Day service is on Zoom and I can catch a bigger better service in another town, why am I joining?
Large wealthy synagogues will survive, though they will run smaller operations with smaller overheads, but they probably have enough reserves and perhaps enough philanthropists to fund a newer model. Midsize and smaller synagogues will not have the human or material resources to survive.
For each year that we can not perpetuate the behavioral norms of the past they will cease to be the norms of the present. I used to hear from formerly involved congregants when I was still actively on the Bima, “nothing personal Rabbi, but the kids are finished Hebrew School and had their Bar/ Bat Mitzvah and we are moving on to other things”.
If I had a dollar for every non returning member that I called to ask why they had not renewed, who answered me, “Rabbi we are just taking a year off” I could have funded a new shule.(They never returned).
What will happen to the Jewish identity of thousands of children and their families who in the past attended camps like Ramah and retuned committed to their Judaism?
What is true about synagogues is equally if not truer about JCC’s. If the gym and pool are closed indefinitely, how many members will renew, and how many of those were athletic non-Jewish members whose only connection to the JCC was its gym?
For many whose Judaism already broke from synagogues there remained a love and or concern for Israel. Many leading donors to Federation were not active or even members of synagogues. Their Jewishness was expressed in supporting the state of Israel and charitable causes in their communities. How long will that commitment last if there are no missions to Israel, no trips to see the projects on the ground? What happens when almost 19,000 people do not attend AIPAC? What will happen to campus aged young adults who will not get to experience Birthright? How will philanthropy grow to support the many Jewish organizations if the current economic situation lasts or deteriorates over the next year or two? If many families are struggling to just get by, where will the economic capital and even more the human capital come from to aid others, when struggling to survive is first on many people’s agenda? Will philanthropists give to Israel or support the hungry and struggling Jews in America?
Finally, we have one more fear to acknowledge. When was the last time that there was great social disorientation, financial collapse, rising anger, and an unquenchable thirst for conspiracy theories that ever went well for the Jews?
We have rising anti-Semitism from the right and the left in this country. We are ripe for a scapegoat, and nature abhors a vacuum. Along comes QAnon. This group, born in the darkness of social media believes the craziest conspiracies this side of Jewish blood libels. Hillary Clinton was involved with a group below a Pizzeria that was running a pedophile sex ring. Debbie Wasserman Schultz hired a Salvadoran gang, MS-13 to murder DNC staffer Seth Rich. Angela Merkel is Adolph Hitler’s granddaughter. There is no proof that a plane hit the Pentagon on September 11. Certain Hollywood celebrities are pedophiles, and that the Rothschild family leads a Satanic cult. Sounds crazy? Read Mein Kampf. Who in Germany in the early 1930’s believed that some painter with crackpot anti-Semitic ideas could bring us World War 2 and the holocaust?
QAnon will have their first congresswomen in the next house when she wins her seat in November.
I am a Rabbi. I cannot leave you here with all this doom and gloom. What can we do about all of this?
I do not have all the answers or even most of the answers. Hopefully, this alarm will generate others to respond and see a pathway that is blocked to me, but I have a few suggestions to contemplate.
We need to change what we can control and be wary of what we cannot control. We can’t control if a vaccine will be ready for us January 1st but we can save shules and JCC’s if we maintain our memberships in them even if they are currently a “bad investment” for our money. It is easier to maintain them than to lose them and recreate them all anew in the future.
If you are currently not a member choose one of the organizations and join it. You may have decided the institution no longer has resonance for you, but you are not an island. The Jewish community needs you so it will be here for you or your family down the road. You do not know now what you or your family will need in whatever our future looks like. There were a lot of people who never came to shule on shabbat without a reason like a simcha or a loss, who flooded my shabbat services on the first Saturday after September 11, 2001. Where would they have gone if all the shules had disappeared?
We need to support institutions we care about so that they will still be here for us when we are healthy enough to use them. We need to be more generous than usual towards individuals in need and for institutions that we want to see in the future.
We need to be with each other in person. We must figure out how to meet outdoors in small groups for little bits of religious services throughout the year. We must talk to our grandchildren about their Jewishness and do interactive Jewish activities with them online. We must tell them stories of seders past to give them some new memories even if they are other people’s memories.
Please share this widely with all the Jews you know and if any of them have suggestions of what else we can do if this pandemic continues longer, please have them share them with me. I would love to follow this article with suggestions that would radiate light and hope amidst my message of concern and loss.
My email is Ravpp1@gmail.com
Stay healthy and strong and let me be the first to wish us all a Shanna Tova.