Don’t lose your connection because of Covid

'When a connection is limited to start with, the fibres that keep it strong need, at minimum, an annual reinforcement'

September 04, 2020 15:19

In a letter published in a German-Jewish newspaper in 1847, an immigrant rabbi to the United States reflected on the power of the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days, to stir even the hearts of Jews far removed from Jewish tradition.

“A Jew moves out to a small town and lives there at a distance, separated from everything relating to Jews and Judaism. It is not known that he is a Jew, he keeps no Jewish commandment, observes no Jewish ceremony. Sometime afterwards one more Jew settles, then a second, then a third. The holy season of our New Year and Day of Atonement comes, the people think of God and see in their prosperity how much they have to thank Him for, notice their irreligious life and are ashamed of it. The desire stirs in their hearts to return to God…one proposes that they constitute themselves as a congregation, the others gladly agree and are enthusiastic…’

Few would argue that one of the great strengths of our community is its ability to come together in large numbers during the Yamim Noraim. Like this moving description of lonely Jews in far-flung locations whose Jewish identity is mysteriously stirred come September, Jews of every description flock to shul on these days and re-identify with their fellow Jews. They cement the bonds of their ancestral heritage; they revitalise tradition in their own lives and — perhaps most importantly of all — they show the next generation that Judaism matters to them. It is one of the most moving elements of the festival season. Come Rosh Hashanah, if Judaism matters to you, you show up.

But this year brings the Covid Yamim Noraim. Understandably, many of those who always come to shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur may not feel able to attend this year. For those who have a year-round relationship with their community, I worry less. They will rebuild their connection in the future. But for those who only attend on these days, I worry that one year out may mean a permanent change in shul habit. And it simply isn’t good enough to say things will all be normal again next year. When a connection is limited to start with, the fibres that keep it strong need, at minimum, an annual reinforcement.

Obviously, I’m not the first to raise this concern. Shuls up and down the country have been working incredibly hard developing strategies to keep people connected in different ways. But I think it needs something more than programming ideas. It needs a direct appeal to people themselves. So, here is my direct pitch to the less regular shul-goers.

If you come to shul every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, don’t let this year be any different. If you feel safe and secure doing so, make every effort to attend in person for at least one service. If you are worried about the numbers, come during a time when numbers are less likely to be an issue, such as the evening services on Rosh Hashanah, or the quieter times on Yom Kippur. And if you can’t come to shul at all for health reasons — find a different way to be active in your community. Don’t be passive, waiting for the shul mailing to arrive and casually leafing through the details of their valiant attempts to keep the community heart beating during Covid. Instead, pick up the phone to the rabbi or chair and say, “I can’t make it to shul, but I’m happy to deliver honey cakes, or phone people to wish them a shana tovah.”

Why does this matter? Because if you skip shul completely this year, there’s no guarantee you will be able to pick it up again next year where you left off. The Jewish heart stirs each year on Rosh Hashanah. Like a carefully crafted timepiece, it never misses the annual call to identify with Jewish tradition. This year may be different, but that annual “desire…in their hearts to return to God” is not. Come next year, this may all seem like a bad dream. Let’s hope so. But in the meantime, don’t let this annual opportunity to strengthen your Jewish identity slip you by. Keep it strong even during Covid — for yourselves, your families and for the rest of our community. This year doesn’t depend on innovative shul programming, important as that may be. It depends on individual Jews standing up and saying, “I am here every year. This year should be no different”.


Yoni Birnbaum is Rabbi of Kehillas Toras Chaim, Hendon.


September 04, 2020 15:19

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