Shabbat was not canceled in Teaneck, N.J. this past weekend — but it was radically altered.
When I first found out that the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County had shuttered area synagogues in an unprecedented move to help “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus pandemic, I was pleased with their leadership. The rabbis’ ban on in-home prayer gatherings, shared Shabbat lunch with guests, and even playdates in Teaneck and other Orthodox communities in the county wouldn’t be easy to follow — but these acts of social distancing were necessary for the larger community’s health and wellbeing.
Now we all know that Teaneck’s COVID-19 cases doubled overnight, and the township has the largest concentration of cases in the state of New Jersey. Local officials are following the lead of the rabbis and asking all residents to self-quarantine.
That’s what we did over Shabbat — a day normally filled with socializing and structure. I wasn’t too concerned about how to get through it. After all, the idea of spending most of the day in my pajamas reading a good book — without the guilt of not being in shul — seemed rather blissful.
The challenge would be more in keeping my children happy. They love going to shul — where they learn about the weekly Torah portion in youth groups, play with their friends and enjoy snacks. My three-year-old needs to spend time outside, and organizing afternoon playdates for my older children is key to keeping everyone entertained when screens aren’t an option.
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A local day school leader in our community suggested that families transform this quiet Shabbat at home into a “family Shabbaton” — a kind of retreat, full of learning and fun. Did my children know what a Shabbaton was? Maybe not, but my nine-year-old loved the idea of creating a schedule for our Shabbat. She took charge. Here’s her vision for Saturday, as she wrote it. (“Bench” is the recitation of the blessings after eating.)
8:00: we all daven together.
8:40: Lego competition for best house. mommy and abba are judges
10:00: play Connect Four
10:30: relax and wait until lunch
12:00: mommy and abba judge our houses
12:10: mommy takes a nap
1:45: early mincha
2:00: abba takes a nap
5:30: we wake mommy and abba
5:40: unicorn fashion show
6:00: have dinner
6:30: relax until shabbat is over
At 7:30 on Shabbat morning, our daughter came to wake us up. “Davening is at 8 a.m.,” she told us. We convinced her to let us sleep in, which disrupted her schedule, but she accommodated us.
An hour later, we all got dressed and prayed together – something I can’t remember doing together as a family at home, as my husband rarely misses minyan.
We taught our children the prayer of Nishmat, a poetic prayer thanking G-d for all he does for us; the prayer is not said during the week, so they hadn’t learned it in school. Despite being cooped up in our home, we are healthy. We have a stocked fridge and freezer, and we have each other. For that, we are incredibly grateful. We make a mi sheberach, a prayer for all those who are sick.
“We go to shul?” the three-year-old asked repeatedly. She didn’t understand what was going on, but maybe it was better that way.
At noon, we had lunch. My daughter prepared a fruit salad (the second miracle of the day, as she typically shows no interest in anything related to the kitchen). We ate gefilte fish and chulent, and studied together. Then, for dessert, we enjoyed a candy platter we received as part of mishloach manot, the gift packages exchanged on Purim. The kids were sated with candy corn and sour fish, and they were content.
But as we looked out the window, we were met with eerie silence. We live up the block from a synagogue, and usually like to watch as families walk by with strollers and kids in tow. But today, it was quiet and the streets were empty. We saw an Amazon Prime van pass by, and our mail was delivered, but otherwise it was like we were living in a remote village. Everyone was inside.
Before long, Shabbat was almost over. The kids had eaten and changed into their pajamas, the Lego competition had been judged, and the sky was getting dark. I wasn’t looking forward to turning on my phone. I wasn’t ready to see the latest news. I wanted to stay nestled in this moment of tranquility, grateful for these three precious children and a calm husband who let me take a long nap. I wasn’t quite ready to face the new week.
But the new week came. We made Havdalah, the ritual that closes Shabbat, then logged onto Yeshivat He’Atid, our children’s school, for their school-wide ceremony. More than 100 families tuned in, and we wished each other a good week. We were all a little startled, wondering how we got to this place, but eager for the social interaction, even if it was only virtual.
As my world grows smaller and smaller, I think about how difficult “social distancing” is, particularly in a close-knit community like Teaneck. But I’m confident that we will find ways to be there for one another. I’m looking forward to going back to shul, the kids going back to school, life returning to normal. The hectic schedules, the busyness of it all — how I long for all that now as I look at a calendar filled with emptiness and cancellations.
I’m sure my children and I will soon tire of being stuck at home. My husband and I will snap at each other, and the kids will get on each other’s nerves and fight over toys. When that inevitably happens, I will think back to this peaceful Shabbat spent at home.
Tamar Snyder Chaitovsky is an award-winning journalist and marketing/communications professional. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and three children.
Sweet, strange: Shabbat under quarantine in Teaneck