Finding the Spirit of Jewish Unity During the Corona Crisis
JNS.org – After managing to slow the onset of COVID-19, Israel is now beginning to record thousands of new cases on a daily basis. While Efrat, a small community mostly made up of former Americans, was among the first to register a mini outbreak with several dozen people infected, it is now the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak and parts of Jerusalem with the fastest-growing numbers of new cases.
Many nursing homes across the country — with both secular and religious residents — have also been hit particularly hard, accounting for the majority of the so far few but too many funerals that have already been performed.
Around the world, Jewish Diaspora communities are also among the hardest-hit. France and the United Kingdom, where together more than 750,000 Jews live, are now following the same dangerous coronavirus pattern that is ravaging Italy and Spain.
The United States is now just beginning to feel the pain felt across Europe. In particular, New York and New Jersey are among the first states to exhibit massive outbreaks. Jewish communities in Brooklyn, NY and Lakewood, NJ are quickly spreading the virus among themselves.
There is almost nowhere in the world where large communities of Jews are safe from corona’s path.
In Israel, the country has been moving steadily towards a full lockdown with police and military enforcement. In the United States, many state governors are starting to move in the same direction.
Large economies have ground to a halt as individuals are forced indoors. Life as we know it has been suspended. We don’t know when this pandemic will end, how many of our loved ones will fall victim to this somewhat deadly plague, and what will be required of us as some semblance of order is restored and schools and marketplaces reopen.
For families with young children, now is a time when parents are forced to spend the quality time many haven’t been able to due to busy work schedules. For those without small children, now is a time to finish or invent projects to keep hands busy and minds sharp. We are all sharing knowledge and engaging with one another via technology that instantly bridges geographic distances in a moment when being across the street suddenly seems as far away as across an ocean.
For everyone, and particularly for the Jewish people, who have a long and storied narrative of coming closer to as well as further away from God — and have suffered major calamities and secured triumphant victories along the way — now is also a time for reflection.
In the past several years, the tone across many of our communities has become increasingly and bitterly divisive. Social media has simultaneously brought out the best and worst, where Torah and modern wisdom share space with harmful content and antisemitic trolling, where education and connectivity meet the useless and the extraordinary waste of precious moments. Too many of those moments are lost with loved ones just an inch beyond our noses.
Politics are no longer about policies, and seemingly endless political campaigns are filled with toxic rhetoric. Many of our leaders are criminalized by the media and considered guilty until proven innocent. Middle ground has turned into an abyss, and political oppositions in Israel and the United States have demonstrated a willingness to tear down our democracies for the sake of removing those elected to power by the public.
And yet despite the bitter politics, our communities are simultaneously stronger than ever. America is a melting pot of all peoples and faiths, where nearly half of world Jewry has lived comfortably and prosperously following the horrors of World War I and World War II in Europe. Israel has blossomed into a melting pot of Jews from the four corners of the earth, where at least 12 diverse tribes of our people live together under a single flag while balancing varied customs and levels of tradition. In a little more than 70 years, the “Startup Nation” has quickly emerged from a resource-poor developing country into an economic, technology, and military superpower.
Jewish birthrates from secular to religious are on the rise. Hebrew is spoken by more people than ever before. And the teaching of Jewish tradition and wisdom is beginning to thrive in the land of our ancestors.
During the coronavirus crisis, Jews are using their hyper-creativity to develop solutions to critical problems. Others are going out of their way to help those in need through abundant acts of kindness. Individuals are spending more time with their loved ones and reaching out to friends and family who are similarly trying to navigate the unknown.
Yet for all the good, too many members of our collective tribe are hanging on to bad habits. As global antisemitism is sharply on the rise placing Jews around the world in real danger, even among ourselves we demonize each other.
Israelis are trashing Haredim, who are now spreading the virus faster than other elements of society. Their large families and insular community settings have quickly turned them into the first Israeli victims. They will not be the last. In the weeks ahead, the coronavirus will strike religious and secular alike, as well as the Arab populations both within Israel and in the West Bank, which until now have not been strictly observing any rules of social distancing.
Haredim are not the enemy. They did not create the coronavirus, and they did not import it into Israel. They did not wish to get sick at all — let alone first. And they certainly do not want to spread sickness to others. Nevertheless, they are being harshly demonized in the bitterest of tones. And they are suffering the most right now.
While they want exemptions from army service and stipends for learning Torah — expectations that many Israelis rightly deem unfair — they are also a critical component of our ancient and modern Jewish narrative and genuinely love living among the nation of Israel, even as they poorly attempt to push back against Israel’s rapid modernization.
Israel’s politicians are so far managing the coronavirus crisis efficiently and with great ingenuity. Under the leadership of the Jewish state’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the government is mobilizing its agencies and empowering the best minds to develop instant solutions that are saving countless numbers of lives. They are communicating effectively with the public. The media’s coverage of the coronavirus crisis has, by and large, been superlative.
Still, political allies turned foes continue to wrestle publicly with each other. They have taken large taxpayer salaries while refusing for more than a year to form a functioning parliamentary majority. Democratic norms and critical checks and balances are being wantonly violated. The coalition system and judicial authority need are in dire need of reform. Yet there are seemingly no straightforward solutions or the willingness to work together to make meaningful changes.
Jews in America proudly visit Israel and support numerous Israeli institutions to a tune of billions of dollars a year. Israelis have provided a significant return on investment. As measures of appreciation, Israelis are developing methods of engagement and sending post-army graduates across the ocean to help American Jews who truly want to remain committed to their identity.
And yet politicized and well-funded forces are advancing dangerous narratives aimed specifically at creating and magnifying divisions between the two largest Jewish communities, as if the Atlantic Ocean wasn’t a great enough divide.
This week, as Jews around the world now get set to celebrate the joyous holiday of Passover, we will hold our previously large traditional seder dinners alone, with only the nuclear families in our homes. The situation is eerily similar to the original night of Passover, in which Jews baked matzahs and ate the sacrificial lambs huddled up in their homes, worried for their lives as a plague was taking the lives of Egyptian firstborn all around them.
That plague was the final phase before the redemption of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery. Today, the modern redemption of the Jewish people has already begun with the miraculous rebirth of the State of Israel. But we remain slaves to many of our own, self-induced bad habits.
The coronavirus should give us the time we need to reflect on all that we have to be appreciative of, and to take meaningful steps to shed behaviors that don’t help us and to foster those that do as the individuals, nation, and people we strive to be when this pandemic comes to an end.
Our reflection should bring us towards a spirit of unity. Unity between secular and religious. Unity between Israel and the Diaspora. Unity between Jews and our neighbors. Unity among our leaders: religious leaders, communal leaders, and politicians.
We must also strive for greater unity between our people and our land — of which immigration and the application of sovereignty are critical components.
Most importantly, as this crisis humbles our understandings of life in so many respects, it is also an appropriate time to strengthen the unity between us and our Creator.
Alex Traiman is the managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.