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Blessed with enough food, family and Facetime to handle the crisis

When I got to the freezer aisle of my the Costco in Culver City, Calif., on Friday afternoon, there were nine kosher chickens left. I swung open the glass doors and started piling them in my shopping cart.

“May I?”

I turned. It was a young woman — I think. Black gloves covered her hands, a scarf hid her face and a knit cap was pulled down to her eyebrows.

“Sure,” I said.

I stepped aside, but not before taking a fifth chicken. Should I have left that for her? Is this how the social breakdown starts, one chicken at a time?

I offered a guilt-ridden “Shabbat Shalom” to the figure in the scarf, and felt terribly all the way home.

The Webcast by Shanee Zamir, Caig Taubman and Rabbi David Wolpe from a Los Angeles recording studio garnered some 2,500 views.

The Webcast by Shanee Zamir, Caig Taubman and Rabbi David Wolpe from a Los Angeles recording studio garnered some 2,500 views. Image by Rob Eshman

I was preparing for our first Coronavirus Shabbat. For 3,000 years, Jewish life developed and thrived in community: the minyan, the Shabbat table, the Passover seder, joint Torah study. We don’t do alone.

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Lo tov heyot adam levado, God decrees in Genesis. It’s not good for humans to be alone. The 1960s landmark study of the kibbutz movement was entitled, Life Is With People, a phrase I always thought could be our people’s motto.

Except now, when it’s not.

As I prepared for my first “Abundance-of-Caution” Shabbat, I wondered how Jews, who survived so many historic exiles, would manage this especially cruel one, exiled into our own homes?

I arrived home and — in an abundance of caution — undressed in the backyard. I showered Costco off. Our table of 10 had, in a series of sadder and sadder texts, become three: my wife, our daughter and me.

My wife, Naomi Levy, is a rabbi, and decided to webcast a Shabbat candle-lighting service from our dining-room table.

Her congregation, called Nashuva, isn’t new to this — they’ve been webcasting services for more than a decade, reaching crowds of 60,000 viewers on Kol Nidre.

But as for congregations around the world, this streaming service was sudden, unexpected.

Elsewhere in Los Angeles, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple and the singer-songwriter Craig Taubman offered Shabbat Inspirit” from a recording studio. The show went live at 3 p.m., before sundown on the East Coast.

The service opened with an avatar of comedian Rick Lupert, making the best of the weirdness.

“As a summer-camp Jew I almost don’t know how to pray without wrapping my arms around the person next to me,” he said. “When the rabbi says, ‘Please rise,’ you don’t even have to. No one will ever know. You should turn your cell phone off, unless you’re watching it on your cell phone, in which case, ask Moses what to do.”

I was watching on my cell phone, because I was multitasking baking challah. There had been no challah to be found anywhere, in any store. Or any bread, for that matter.

Taubman and his band of musicians sang beautifully, and Rabbi Wolpe stressed that even amid our anxiety, it’s important to celebrate.

“We know people are scared,” he said. “We know this is a difficult time. We also know the human spirit is indomitable, that we are not alone. Not in this world and not in the world beyond. So let’s face this all together.“

If some walls went up, others came down. Local synagogues became national, even global: some 2,478 people had watched the Taubman-Wolpe Webcast by Saturday afternoon, many logging in with virtual “Shabbat shalom” messages..

“Hello from Lincoln, Nebraska!” typed one viewer. There were others from Teaneck, N.J., Charleston, S.C., London, Montreal, Costa Rica. Social distancing was bringing a far-flung tribe closer together.

I went to Cong. Shaarey Zedek in Winnipeg, Canada—virtually. That shul held in-person services, but streamed them as well. The after-service celebration, Rabbi Matthew Leibl announced from the bimah, would not include a communal challah, the usual kiddush club was cancelled, and servers would dole out individual portions of dessert rather than have people help themselves from a buffet.

“I’ll tell you right now,” said Liebl, “This plague is definitely not my favorite plague.”

In Fullerton, Calif., an hour or so drive south of where I live, Temple Beth Tikvah closed its doors. But I watched Senior Rabbi Nico Socolovsky and Cantorial Fellow Gabrielle Newman lead an upbeat, intimate service Friday night from the empty sanctuary, and followed up with a Torah study Saturday morning via the Zoom platform.

Senior Rabbi Nico Socolovsky and Cantorial Fellow Gabrielle Newman lead an upbeat, intimate service Friday night from an empty sanctuary.

Senior Rabbi Nico Socolovsky and Cantorial Fellow Gabrielle Newman lead an upbeat, intimate service Friday night from an empty sanctuary. Image by Rob Eshman

I learned something there. The word “quarantine” comes from the number 40, pointed out Rabbi Socolovsky, who is from Buenos Aires—cuarenta is 40 in Spanish.

In this week’s Torah portion, “Ki Tisa,” Moses ascends Mount Sinai and stays there for 40 days. While Moses was receiving the Torah above, the Children of Israel were worshipping the Golden Calf below. The lesson?

“This quarantine can be an uplifting time, or a destructive time,” the rabbi said. “And what makes the difference? What we decide to do with that time.”

I had one more service—the one at my dining-room table.

I pulled the challah from the oven and sat down, holding my cell phone to capture my wife for the Instagram audience, as her phone beamed to her Facebook page.

She blessed the candles, led a meditation, read a prayer she had written for facing the pandemic. Viewers logged on from around the world—eventually, more than 3,700.

Rabbi Naomi Levy leads a virtual Shabbat candle lighting.

Rabbi Naomi Levy leads a virtual Shabbat candle lighting. Image by Rob Eshman

When the time came to bless those beside us, she suggested we do so without actually touching. Even if we aren’t ourselves vulnerable, those who are at risk depend on the precautions we take.

“It’s really not about an abundance of caution,” Naomi said. “It’s about a minimum of humanity. The human thing to do is to stay put.”

We were blessed—with enough food, family, and Facetime to handle the crisis, at least in the short term. And I’m sure more and more congregations will come online, and money and expertise will pour into digital Jewish innovation— something that has lagged far behind our Christian counterparts.

But that still leaves hard questions. Who will step up and help support thousands of musicians, artists and staff without regular work? How long can a communal people thrive in isolation? What will we do when the very tools we have for facing illness and death—visiting the sick, funerals, sitting shiva—are also forbidden? And if virtual Shabbats are challenging, what about virtual seders?

It’s a strange, new Jewish world. But the chicken, by the way, was excellent.

Rob Eshman, a journalist in Los Angeles, is the former publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Journal.


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