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Sweatpants, sneakers, and lots of coffee: How the Jewish world is working from home

When schoolchildren of the future learn about the chaos and despair of the coronavirus pandemic, I hope they also learn that we explored Mars from our kitchen tables.

As NASA’s Perseverance rover began its search for life on Mars, scientist Sanjeev Gupta made another kind of history by sharing pictures of himself controlling the rover from his London apartment. Unable to travel to NASA’s headquarters in California, he cobbled together laptops and iPads to create a homestyle mission control.

Not all of us are making scientific breakthroughs — if I keep my plants alive for the duration of this pandemic, it will be accomplishment enough. By by abandoning our office towers, by curating our Zoom backgrounds, by juggling meetings with dishes and childcare, we’re all participating in a radical reimagination of what it means to be a person at work.

I wanted to know how people were making it work when no one could see them. So I asked a bunch of interesting Jews to tell me about their days and give me a glimpse of their pandemic-era workspaces. Here’s what they had to say. The following responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Marcella White Campbell.

Marcella White Campbell took the reins of Be’chol Lashon, one of the largest organizations advocating for Jews of color, in January. A former consultant with a long tenure in Silicon Valley, she promised to bring a “startup mentality” to the organization. Throughout the pandemic, Campbell has been holed up in her San Francisco home, helping Be’chol Lashon adapt its work — which includes diversity training, summer programs for kids, education for adults — to the online-only era.

Campbell starts her day by “trying to sneak coffee and breakfast” on a Zoom meeting, and usually works straight through lunch. But she always makes time for dinner with her pod: her husband, a daughter home from college, and a son in high school.

What gets her started: From the first day of lockdown, I made the commitment to shower and get dressed 7 days a week. A year ago, that would have seemed like a particularly low bar, but I’m actually pretty proud of myself.

Her WFH uniform: A silk-blend sweater and long cardigan in complementary jewel tones. Whatever happens below the camera must remain a mystery. Uggs and stretch pants may or may not be involved.

Her number-one Zoom meeting tip: Make sure the problem at hand cannot be handled with an email or a Slack direct message.

The hardest part of her job: When you deeply believe in what you are doing, it’s tough to set boundaries on work. When work expands to fill all possible time and you’re always at your house, that becomes a problem.

What she’s learned: I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I got into adult coloring books. Setting a coloring timer for 5 or 10 minutes before a meeting actually does work as a little mindfulness exercise.

Her weekend ritual: Under lockdown, my family started a tradition called Date Night. Every Saturday, my husband and I get takeout from a date-worthy restaurant and have dinner on one side of the apartment while the kids occupy the other side and watch movies together. For fun, we try to recreate the restaurant experience as closely as possible, including place settings, music, and presentation. I look forward to it all week.

Daniel Fink.

Image by The Forward

Rabbi Dan Fink leads Ahavath Beth Israel in Boise, Idaho. It’s one of the oldest synagogues west of the Mississippi — but its building hasn’t been used much this year. Fink said that one of the best parts of being a rabbi is that there’s no such thing as a “normal” routine. But during the pandemic, his days have filled up with phone calls and email. He works in a home office decorated with his own nature photography, spending time writing divrei Torah, teaching b’nei mitzvah students, checking in with elderly congregants, and meeting with local nonprofits about social justice issues. Despite the vagaries of the pandemic, he said “It’s a good life.”

Daniel Fink.

Image by Courtesy of Dan Fink

What gets him up: The first thing I do is say Modeh ani, then brew myself a full flask of hot tea with milk and sugar. I drink my tea while listening to The Daily podcast and reading through the news in the New York Times, Washington Post, Idaho Statesman, Haaretz and yes, the Forward. Then I’m ready to go.

Chasing the sun: In warmer months, my favorite place to be is on my back deck, nestled among the Idaho pines. Now that I am inside, I’m in a room that is both my study and exercise room. On my desk, I have a bowl of sticks and stones and mosses and other “finds” that I’ve picked up on various backpacking trips and paddling trips, here in Idaho and around the world.

What he’s wearing: Fleece—shirt and pants. And bare feet. Aside from funerals, I haven’t worn a tie in a year, which is marvelous.

How he keeps congregants connected: I have always tried to be good about checking in with my community by phone, even before the pandemic, but this is now more important than ever. Calls that used to take five minutes now take twenty-five, because people are lonely and isolated and so desperate to share with someone who cares about them.

What he’s learned: The age of the 25 minute d’var Torah is over and done. And good riddance. My new approach is that if I can’t say it in seven or eight minutes, it’s not clear enough in my own head. My pared-down siddur will remain pared down.

Favorite WFH memory: I led the Purim service, including the megillah reading, from the campground at Zion National Park, while sitting in front of our campfire. That was extraordinary.

Carin Mrotz.

Image by The Forward

The CEO of the Minneapolis-based non-profit Jewish Community Action, Mrotz has helped provide anti-bias training to dozens of progressive activists. Jewish Community Action normally focuses on issues like voting engagement and housing justice; but after the killing of George Floyd in July 2020, Mrotz and her staff pivoted to supporting ensuing protests and protecting local communities, whether by bringing medical care to injured protestors or protecting businesses from arsonists.

Several months later, Mrotz is once again working from home, spending up to 12 hours each day on Zoom while coaching her two kids through a tough year of distance learning. Minnesota winter weather has made it hard to get outside, but she’s eager to bring some of her meetings offline and outdoors.

Mrotz and her children take a break at the dining room table.

Mrotz and her children take a break at the dining room table. Image by Courtesy of Carin Mrotz

What gets her up: In the words of the great rabbi, Dolly Parton, I stumble to the kitchen and pour myself a cup of ambition.

Where she’s working: We have a home office, but it was claimed by my eighth grader early on in the pandemic, so I bought a desk and set myself up to work in a corner of our guest room. My favorite thing in it is probably my guitar — I was using down time between Zooms to learn songs, so my husband hung it up over my desk to keep me from always leaving it on the floor.

The new business casual: I prefer the outfit version of a mullet: business on top and comfy on the bottom. I have leaned hard into sweatpants, preferably in bright colors that make me feel optimistic. It’s extremely normal for me to be in a meeting with a state representative wearing a blazer with green sweatpants. And I hope that state representative is wearing the same.

How she keeps up with the kids: My husband also works partly from home, so we juggle and trade off. My eighth grader is mostly self-directed but my third grader needs support in managing distance learning, so we just take turns with her. It’s not ideal, and sometimes the schedule doesn’t work and one of us has to change a meeting or miss an appointment, but we’re mostly making it work.

What she’ll keep post-pandemic: This summer, my husband and I started taking walks together every evening. We were just desperate for some time away from our kids and the ability to have a whole uninterrupted conversation. We kept it up until winter and then shifted to snowshoeing.

Her weekend ritual: Sleeping in, and never ever reading email during Shabbat.

Scott Shapiro.

Image by The Forward

Scott Shapiro teaches at Yale Law School, where he focuses on jurisprudence. Outside the confines of the legal world, he’s known for his presence on Twitter, where he spits out memes about the obscure theory of legal positivism and deadpan takes on the culture wars. (“First they came for Mr. Potato Head and I said nothing, for I was not a tuber,” he tweeted after conservative furor over the iconic toy’s gender-neutral renaming.)

Based in New York City, Shapiro wakes up at 7 a.m. and starts his morning by drinking four cups of espresso “while scrolling Twitter and reading the news.” He spends most of the day working on his forthcoming book on hacking. At 5 p.m., he shuts the computer and works on his guitar homework for an hour. “I take my music lessons way too seriously and am still lousy,” he said.

What gets him up in the morning: I check my phone to see if I’ve been cancelled.

Where he’s working: For most of the pandemic, my wife has worked in our bedroom, my kids in theirs. So I worked in the kitchen. That was not optimal. For the last month, I have had a desk in our living room by a window through which I can see a sliver of the Empire State Building. Which is optimal. My favorite objects in my workspace are my books.

His WFH uniform: Same as office attire: Jeans, t-shirt, sneakers. It’s good to be a philosopher.

Average time spent composing a tweet: Until a few weeks ago, I would spend zero seconds on a tweet. Part of what made it fun was just tweeting whatever popped into my head. I did not self-censor. Now that my account has gotten bigger, the chance that a large number of people might freak out has grown to the point where I have to think for two seconds about whether I want the hassle.

Favorite WFH memory: Working from home has been so disorienting for me that I don’t have distinct memories from it. Every day bleeds into the next. My favorite memory will be when it’s over and I get to go back to work. I love my job and miss my students and colleagues.

Jackie Hoffman.

Image by The Forward

Comedian Jackie Hoffman has performed on many stages — but the weirdest one might be her own living room. Since theaters across the country shut down, she’s learned to do shows from home, whether that means receiving shipments of camera equipment to film herself, reading scripts over Zoom, or recording an animated series from a makeshift studio in her bedroom. As you might suspect, in this line of work there’s no such thing as a normal routine.

Jackie Hoffman.

Jackie Hoffman. Image by Courtesy of Jackie Hoffman

What gets her started: I usually cry and have coffee.

Where she works: My husband and mother in law got me a new computer for a “landmark number” birthday. It’s set up on a table in the corner of the living room, but when there’s Zoom work I bring it to other areas of the apartment.

Her quarantine colleagues: My husband is there sometimes, which can be challenging — he is a musician who plays two instruments, trumpet and upright bass.

Her favorite WFH moment: My husband and I did a show from our living room that was broadcast into nursing homes. It was a very touching and fulfilling experience.

Her weekend ritual: I really don’t like pandemic weekends because there’s less of what little routine I have. When we need to fill time, my husband and I will walk to the dog park and look at the dogs.

Michael Twitty.

Image by The Forward

A chef, food writer, and food historian, Michael Twitty wears more hats than we can count. On his blog Afroculinaria, which debuted in 2010, he chronicles the cuisines created over generations by enslaved African Americans. In non-pandemic times, he leads culinary tours to West Africa, teaching about the traditions that still influence contemporary American cuisine. His food history memoir, “The Cooking Gene,” won the 2018 James Beard Award for Best Food Writing. And on top of all that, he’s a Hebrew school teacher.

Based outside Washington, D.C., Twitty spends most of his day doing research and interviews for future projects, with frequent breaks to speak at Zoom events. He recently made an appearance on Michelle Obama’s new Netflix show, “Waffles and Mochi,” to teach kids about one of his favorite staple foods: rice.

Morning ritual: Davening. I wash my hands, shower, get dressed, put on tefillin. I say the basics.

What he keeps in his workspace: My appliqué cloth from Benin. It represents the history of the Fon people, from whom I have ancestry. In 2019, I was able to make a culinary pilgrimage there.

His at-home colleagues: My blind adopted dog Felix is my coworker: Beg for food, sleep, pee break, repeat.

His go-to lunch: Soup, salad, whatever one-pot meal I make up, or homemade pizza.

Favorite weekend ritual: My husband, who lives about an hour away from me for now, comes up for Shabbat dinner. We do that, Shabbat lunch and seudah shlesheet.

Sarah Livingston.

Image by The Forward

Sarah Livingston is the executive director of Hillel at Ohio University. It’s her job to reach out to the university’s students, many of whom have started college from their childhood bedrooms, and induct them into a new form of online-only Jewish life. She does all that while parenting two toddlers: Gavi, four years old, and Rafa, two.

Most days, Livingston heads to the office for a few hours while her sons stay home with their nanny. She uses the time away from home to take Zoom meetings and phone calls — “because once I’m home I can’t do it with screaming kids,” she said. After making her kids dinner and putting them to bed, she sits down at the dining room table for a second shift of paperwork, chipping away at the grant-writing, budget-making and marketing that goes into running a Hillel. By 11 p.m., she’s in bed, getting ready to for the next day.

Sarah Livingston.

Sarah Livingston. Image by Courtesy of Sarah Livingston

What gets her out of bed: I spend about 18 minutes on a music meditation playlist or guided meditation from Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro. It helps me to start my day in the right energy space to deal with willful toddlers and all of my work.

Coffee breaks (just kidding, there are none): My husband works in Canton, Ohio, and we live in Athens, so I single-parent four days a week and I don’t get breaks. But if I am taking a break from work and I can do it without kids it usually involves being outside — a hike is my preference.

How she gets it done: Our nanny has made it possible for me to be successful and for my husband to work away in Canton. I would have lost my mind months ago without her. She gives her whole heart to our family.

What she’s learned: I will never take for granted the joy of a face-to-face meeting again and will always take my breaks outside as much as possible. No more of this sitting at my desk for five or six hours and forgetting to use the washroom or get a drink of water.

Her favorite WFH moment: This one happens every six weeks: Gavi, my oldest, comes on the screen at the beginning of our board meetings to chat with my board. Every time he introduces himself like he doesn’t know everyone on the call and they don’t know him. “Hi, my name is Gabriel. What’s your name? How are you? What are we talking about?” I know it’s gonna happen but it always makes me laugh. It will be a very sweet and funny memory in years to come.

Her weekend ritual: Shabbat morning. I always make an extra challah just for French toast, and we all eat a big breakfast together. Then we get dressed and go for a hike as a family. We try to go somewhere new at least once a month.

Melissa Balaban.

Image by The Forward

In 2004 Melissa Balaban, then an assistant dean at USC Law School, helped found IKAR, a Los Angeles shul known for its drum circles and rejection of stodgy, institutionalized Jewish practice. To serve a growing membership almost two decades later, IKAR has had to adopt some of the trappings of institutional Jewry, from a sprawling building to programming for kids and singles to a full staff of rabbis running it all.

And Balaban, now the synagogue’s chief executive officer, is still at the helm. Her typical pandemic era day involves “Back to back Zoom meetings starting at 8 a.m.,” she said. She waits for the occasional phone call in order to fold laundry, make dinner, or take a walk outside.

Melissa Balaban.

Melissa Balaban. Image by Courtesy of Melissa Balaban

What gets her started: I wake up at 5 a.m. whether I like it or not. So I read a novel for at least 15 minutes, meditate for 5 minutes, skim the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, do the New York Times mini crossword and get on the Peloton.

Her quarantine colleagues: My husband and sometimes one of my adult daughters. We have had lunch together three times over the past year. But it is nice to just be in each other’s space.

The part of her job people don’t know about: Since I was the kid who cut Hebrew school class, I am the one the rabbis ask if a program will be understandable and accessible to ill-educated Jews — like me.

What she’ll keep from her pandemic routine: Not wearing proper shoes. Reading novels in bed in the morning. Maybe working from a home a day or two a week — I will miss my husband.

Her weekend ritual: Yelling at my family to stop talking while I am watching online services.

Irene Katz Connelly is a staff writer at the Forward. You can contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @katz_conn.

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