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COVID-19 and Orthodox life: The pitfalls and privileges of community living

Five months ago, I visited New York City’s Lander College for Women, an Orthodox women’s college, eager to discuss my research with the next generation of undergraduate political science majors. My alma mater greeted me with open arms and we gathered in a classroom for a discussion on how cities can produce successful social outcomes. I talked about the relationship between place, identity, and governance efforts to increase equity and community cohesion. We sat close together, discussing the benefits of producing spaces that are densely populated, designed for a number of uses, public transit-oriented, and peppered with many different housing types.

I noted that Orthodox Jewish communities in the United States tend to naturally live in areas that – if not intentionally designed in this way – are experienced in ways similar to these designs. We create new housing arrangements, provide ride-sharing services, often sell goods from our residences, and intentionally live close to each other. We also extend this “community” beyond normal geographic boundaries, I told the young women. We see ourselves as a singular cohesive social group and as such, we travel long distances to see each other, to share joy, to provide relief.

That classroom is empty today. Those young women will be finishing their semester online. Some of them returned to homes in cities across the country. Others are sheltering in place in the New York area, where their lives are now threatened by COVID-19.

Six weeks after I left, a novel strain of coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China. It has created a global pandemic, one that has hit urban areas incredibly hard. Almost overnight, living in close proximity to millions of other people, being stuck in a tube with hundreds of people for a 40 minute commute, and attempting to walk down a block with both homes and stores can present significant threats to your physical health.

The American Orthodox Jewish community is only beginning to grapple with this reality. With this new state, we’ve become uniquely aware of how interconnected our lives are. Not only do we struggle with social distancing measures in our own geographic areas – communities across the country are begging people not to travel or allow visitors. Still despite pleas and warnings, some people continue to struggle to obey recommendations as well as direct orders.

The restrictions against gatherings are difficult to internalize when so much of our lives revolve around communal life. Praying in large groups, celebrating weddings with all of our loved ones, traveling to family members for holidays- these are essential elements of Orthodox Jewish life, ones we’ve been forced to abandon. Some of these practices stem from Torah and Rabbinic laws and practices. Others have been adopted to reflect historic communal norms. All of them are incredibly intertwined in our everyday existence and difficult to detach from our collective identity.

Watching this unfold, as a member of the Orthodox community, I feel overwhelmed by many competing emotions. Anger. Fear. Pain. I want to scream at the people who refuse to listen. To blacklist leaders who, even now, encourage gatherings for prayers and Torah learning. I want to cry with my friends who have lost loved ones. To lie to them, and myself. To not give in to the despair.

And amidst all of this, I’ve found myself wondering whether the urban design and governance patterns I’ve long advocated for are in fact a significant threat to our social sustainability. To ask myself whether the inability to distance ourselves- a behavior that now poses a serious threat to our health- is in fact a negative byproduct of the social experiences we’ve created and maintained, even across varying geographic areas.

My relatives in the New York-New Jersey region will almost certainly contract the virus. My in-laws in Oak Park, Michigan are now in one of the next major hotspots. My extended family members in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Baltimore are also at risk. And their constant close proximity to each other only intensifies that danger.

My phone won’t stop buzzing and though I know I can’t concentrate, I’m afraid of the uncertainty. If I turn it off, will I miss the announcement that the next death was a loved one? Will I lose the chance to speak to someone for the last time? Will I be forced to send a belated “Baruch Dayan Haemes” message to a friend? With the constant onslaught, I haven’t been able to concentrate for more than a few minutes for the last two weeks.

And yet, it is exactly the constant nature of these texts and calls that gives me hope, despite the fear, the pain, and the frustration. Because, while our connectivity might pose a short-term threat, it is our deep and rich networks that will keep us alive in the long run. Neighbors stepping in to deliver meals and other much needed resources, family members teaming up to prevent the most vulnerable from feeling truly isolated, countless individuals praying for those they’ve never met.

After my speech at the Lander College for Women, several of the young women stayed afterwards to speak to me, both about my professional and personal life. We exchanged contact information. One young woman was from the Seattle area. I’ve found myself thinking about her and her family, hoping they’re safe and healthy. Not only because we existed, for several brief moments, in the same physical space, but because our sense of place and identity brought us together. We shared a deep interconnected nature tied to our hometowns and our personal experiences as women in the Orthodox community.

The deep sense of connectivity- driven by our living patterns and the experiences that we embed into them- will be key to our recovery.

We are isolated — but not alone.


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