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How these strong Jewish women survive the Covid-19 pandemic

It has been more than 130 days since schools across the country have closed. The situation escalated so quickly that no parent could have prepared. I remember standing in my daughter’s preschool classroom with her, holding her pink nap mat with gold stars, shell shocked. Moms around the country were standing with me, stunned by the coming plague and the ramifications it would have for our families, our careers, our health. As fall looms, and many schools remain closed or face closure at any time, families face impossible choices with little resources.

I reached out to five incredible Jewish moms about how they are coping with schools closed and access to childcare often out of reach. I wanted Jewish moms across America, including myself, to know that they are not alone in this difficult time.

Jewish moms hold a cultural fascination and are too often depicted in caricature. We are cruel to be kind nags who smother our children into achievement. We are mean, we can’t cook, we are high maintenance JAPs. We are the butt of the jokes of too many misogynistic men.

The truth is, Jewish moms are prizefighters. The cultural expectations on us are ridiculous — we are expected to achieve high-level careers, raise multiple children, and create an endless stream of beautiful holidays out of thin air.

We are expected to manage the enormous task of running a Jewish home and judged harshly if we fall short. We are constantly fighting misogyny, Christian hegemony, and anti-Semitism. Many of us are also fighting racism, homophobia, ableism and living in poverty as well.

Jewish moms fight to hold a place in the Jewish world, beyond the kitchen and the nursery, and we are too often belittled, demeaned and disempowered by the same Jewish men singing Eshet Chayil.

Whether we are fighting to get our kid into their shoes, to get a space on that all-male panel, to master a perfect challah or to run for Congress, one thing is for certain: Jewish moms fight hard and we come to win.

Our mothers and grandmothers fought too, they kicked down the door for us. Now, coronavirus is threatening to set all women, Jewish and otherwise, back a generation.

In April, women’s participation in the workplace shrunk to 54.7% the lowest it’s been since the 1980s. Job losses are disproportionately hurting women. Women’s earnings are taking a hit, worsening the wage gap. Women who are married to men in heterosexual partnerships were already doing an unequal amount of unpaid domestic work at home, constantly working the notorious second shift that too many men absolve themselves of. Most mothers in America are either breadwinners or co-breadwinners, our careers are not merely an intellectual exercise, we pay the bills.

It’s been five months since I stood there, with my daughter in her closed school. I work multiple jobs and suddenly, I am also a stay-at-home mom. I have struggled every single day to manage it all. Most days it feels like I am constantly running around, trying to keep all of the balls in the air, terrified something will hit the floor.

Nothing has fallen so far through strength, determination, a new swing set and lots of Elmo. It has been enormously difficult for me personally. We have to be able to talk about that, to tell each other that this moment is about mitigating disaster, picking the best of bad choices, and suspending all judgment to support each other. None of us are magic. All of us are scared. Nothing is empowering, to ourselves or others, about being quiet.

When I feel lost, especially in motherhood, I always seek the voices of other women to guide me, console me, uplift me. The voices of other Jewish moms remind me that we are stronger and more capable than we know. I wanted to bring those voices to you, stories of amazing women and how they are surviving this terrible time.

One has been on the front lines fighting coronavirus. Another is fighting to ensure you can vote without getting sick. One mourned with her six kids, with no childcare and no shiva. Two have survived COVID-19. I hope their stories inspire you and help you get through this — or at least help you get through one more afternoon without school, without a plan, with nothing but the sheer determination not to ever give up on being a great mom, and also being so much more.

Marjorie Ingall, the writer who literally wrote the book on Jewish motherhood.

Marjorie Ingall

Marjorie Ingall

All the moms (and the dads who do the heavy lifting of parenting, which every dad will think means them which NOPE) have all my sympathy.

Friends! You aren’t screwing up! I know it feels like you are. But you’ve been presented with an untenable situation and you’re doing your level best.

I’m lucky my kids are teenagers — sure, I worry that my college kid has to take a year off (how can her fancy college, with its bloated endowment, not give parents a price break when there are no in-person classes?) and that my 15-year-old’s online learning was interrupted almost daily by their teacher’s 9-year-old Zoom-bombing the class with Parry Gripp videos, so whatever my kid lacked in a thought-provoking group discussion of The Color of Water they gained in pedagogically invaluable exposure to “Boogie Boogie Hedgehog,” “This is the Best Burrito I’ve Ever Eatento,” and “Do You Like Waffles.” I worry about my husband being laid off and my inability to focus and whether the antibodies we have from all getting sick from Covid-19 back in March will keep on protecting us and others.

And I still have it way, way better than you parents of younger kids. I didn’t have to crack the whip about schoolwork for either kid, and they could make their own damn lunches, and while the cancellation of study abroad (Kid #1) and Jewish camp (Kid #2) blows, my kids at least are reading for fun (which I value more than any schoolwork they could do) and managing their own time and (Kid #1 got an internship with a group working for educational equity and justice in NYC public schools, Kid #2 is taking an online writing class and planning socially distanced skate dates with their roller derby friends, as soon as outdoor wheels, sold out everywhere, are back in stock.

But my point, and I do have one, is please, please, please, moms of younger children: cut yourself a break. You are living through an impossible situation not of your own making. Once again the discourse is infuriatingly, wrongly framed, leaving caregiving out of the how-we-get-the-economy-back-on-track conversation, which means moms are disproportionately harmed. Unless you have the money for an army of tutors and caregivers and a morally gray willingness to put those folks at risk by paying them to hang in person with your family, you cannot do all you’re being asked to do. Please don’t feel like you’re screwing up. It’s not you, it’s it. You’re doing amazing, sweetie. And you should listen to me, because I wrote the book on Jewish parenting and thus far neither of my children has become a serial killer or Kayleigh McEnany.

Blimi Marcus, the nurse who caught COVID-19.

Blimi Marcus

Blimi Marcus

Childcare has been a challenge for me, since I worked in a New York City hospital through March and April during the surge. My husband had some flexibility (he is essentially self-employed and sits in a private office, so he worked throughout the surge) but I also had to rely on my nanny, despite the risk. She masked up and came to and from my home directly and we both agreed to the inherent risks of her continuing to work for me.

This allowed me to keep my job, but I did immediately decide that we will not be attending virtual school. By mid-March when schools closed, I began getting texts from my nanny with phone line problems and Zoom issues related to my daughter’s classes, and while rounding on COVID-19 patients at work that wasn’t acceptable to me.

Something had to give, so I made the executive decision to allow my children a “gap year” for the rest of the school year. I don’t regret that. It allowed for a peaceful time for my kids as we socially isolated and quarantined for two months without fights or stress over attending classes or doing homework. Ages 5 and 10, they played together for 14 hours a day and we supplemented that with masked and socially distanced bike rides around the block, and painting and baking indoors.

After the surge in NYC ended, my husband and I caught COVID. We were sick for two weeks. Our children survived on pasta and Mickey Mouse. Our friends sent food and cards and games for our children, which was special. I did not return to work after that.

I am working from home, and this was actually much more difficult. Living in a small Brooklyn apartment with children home and trying to attend virtual meetings and write and teach (I was teaching nursing students during the spring semester) was emotionally exhausting. There was nowhere to sit, no cafe to work in, and my 2-bedroom apartment wasn’t outfitted for extended quarantine!

Now that we’re in July and NYC has entered Phase III, I feel like I’m catching my breath. My children are enrolled in day camp, I have a tutor for my daughter to catch her up on her studies, and cases in my community are extremely low to nonexistent. As a health care provider, though, my antennae are up and my worries for our country are not over. We’re in a bad place.

Jordana Horn, the lawyer and writer who mourned with six kids.

Jordana Horn Cooper

Jordana Horn Cooper Image by Courtesy Jordana Horn Cooper

Our last day of in-school school was a half-day on March 13, and when everyone came home that day, the expectation was that the kids would be home for a few weeks. I have two high schoolers, three elementary schoolers and one nursery schooler. I was extremely fortunate in a few ways: I had a home big enough for a big family, I had a spouse who also normally worked from home pre-pandemic, and I had a love for the big family ethos of “The Sound of Music.”

That being said, it’s been … immersive. As a mom of so many kids, but particularly younger kids, ‘school’ is very hands-on — the younger ones can’t even log onto their various Google meets without help, and can’t do the work without assistance, and the assistance is me. I get an hour walk in the mornings across the street from my mom, and that’s my break and I actually think that without that, I would really lose myself.

Deb Perelman’s piece in The New York Times resonated with me since my entire pre-pandemic professional life has largely transpired in hours while the kids were at school. I’m doing what I can professionally to stay in the mix. But as much as I want to get back to life as it was, we have maintained distancing pretty strictly. My kids (whose camps didn’t cancel, that is) dropped out of camp this summer, and I’m running my own camp here at home. No vacation plans. Our big change was to expand our bubble to include my parents and some cousins — and I don’t see that changing any way but in the direction of contracting our bubble once more in fall and winter.

Right at the beginning of the quarantine, about two weeks in, my father-in-law died. It was extremely surreal (and I am thankful that we at least got to have a graveside funeral with my husband’s brother and wife as the only other people allowed to attend) to come home and not have a shiva, not to have anyone outside our house hug my husband with their condolences.

Even as defenses wear down in summer, I have a sense of what it will be like to have Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, etc. alone rather than being with our community. It is bitterly sad and I miss it, but I am trying to keep my eyes on the prize, that is, hoping we all live to see the other side of this. I can barely remember the way life was before at this point — it feels like a dream. Things like going into the city on public transit to record podcasts at a studio that has now closed, or meeting a friend for lunch and possibly even sharing a side dish, seem borderline preposterous. I think that’s actually a good thing that it seems so remote — because I anticipate that things will become much, much harder before they become better.

I keep thinking of the Leo Lionni story “Frederick,” a mouse who, when the hard winter comes, he shares tales of the colors of summer and it lights up the cold darkness. We’re going to need a lot of light this winter in order to make it to the other side.

Halie Soifer, executive director of Jewish Democratic Council of America, who relied on au pairs until President Trump prohibited their visas.

Haile Soifer

Haile Soifer Image by Haile Soifer

As a working mom of three young boys, I’m proud of the fact that my husband and I have successfully parented while working in politics, largely by following two rules. First, we have learned to accept a degree of imbalance, especially in election cycles. Second, we have been able to rely on childcare, which helps to facilitate our fluctuating and demanding schedules.

In the past five years, we have warmly integrated Christian, Catholic, Muslim, Black, Austrian, German, and French au pairs into our Jewish American home. The au pair program, which is regulated by the State Department, provides culturally diverse, affordable, and flexible childcare. In good times and bad, the value of the au pair program cannot be understated. It provides exceptional care at approximately half the cost of a full-time nanny. Amid the COVID pandemic, it fills an acute need for safe and responsible childcare.

President Trump’s June 22 Executive Order prohibiting J-1 visas effectively barred 20,000 new au pairs from entering the United States, including the au pair who was set to join our family this summer. The ostensible reason for the visa ban was to create American jobs, though it will likely have the opposite effect. For many families — especially military families — au pairs provide an indispensable form of childcare. In the absence of au pairs, many parents may stop working as opposed to choosing more risky or expensive options, only making the unemployment crisis in America worse. With his reckless visa ban, Trump has only made life harder for families, children, and working parents, especially those who rely on au pairs

Sari Laufer, the rabbi who finds solace in Torah

Rabbi Sari Laufer

Rabbi Sari Laufer Image by Stephen S. Wise Temple

“Reish Lakish said: ‘Anyone who teaches someone else’s child Torah is regarded by the Torah as if he made him’” —Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 99b

While I have never been sold on a singular parenting “philosophy,” the text above is certainly a big part of the way I parent. As a working parent I have relied on those (mostly, though not exclusively women) who have loved and nurtured my children; in doing so, they nurtured me and allowed me to do work that I love. Because of “my village,” I have been able to mostly successfully be a parent and rabbi. My refrain is an updated version of this text: We are not meant to do this alone.

For me — and I suspect for many others — this is the hardest part of pandemic parenting. All of the support systems — physical and emotional — that my husband and I have worked hard to build, are out of reach, literally. I cannot access childcare for my children, nor socialization for them. I do not have time to connect with friends beyond the ongoing string of parenting memes we share over text. Every minute seems filled: If I am not doing something with my two children (ages six-and-a-half and three-and-a-half), I am answering a work email. If I am not answering a work email or doing something with my children, there is a dish that needs to be washed or another load of laundry to be folded.

As a working parent, I worry that my children’s’ memories of this time will be an endless stream of, “Mommy needs to work now” statements, interspersed with the occasional craft project. With absolutely no childcare since March, each day feels like some sort of physical and emotional feat, an obstacle course with no foreseeable finish line.

On my hardest days of which there are many, there are a lot of tears — mine as much as my children’s. Like all parents, I worry about what this is doing to their mental and spiritual health; I worry about how this will shape their world and the ways in which they interact with it. I feel guilty for the time I am not able to devote to them, and feel anxious about the work I am not able to finish. In my better moments, I remember another sustaining teaching; the rabbi who follows his mentor into the bedroom and into the bathroom, and when asked why he is there, responds: This too is Torah, and I must learn it. When my children show up in varying stages of dress on a work Zoom? This too is Torah. When we give the extra half-hour of screen time because my husband and I have overlapping calls and there’s nothing we can do? This too is Torah. When my children talk about all of the things they want to do “when the virus is gone?” This too is Torah.

This — this time, this loneliness, this feeling of failure and anxiety and fear — this too is Torah, and one day, perhaps I will know — and teach — the lessons I have learned from it.

Sari Laufer is a rabbi at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles.


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