Entering a third pandemic year, Jews see reasons to hope — and stay cautious
Julia Métraux, now 24, first started having severe fatigue and chronic pain about six years ago — symptoms that led to her eventual diagnosis with vasculitis, which involves inflammation of the blood vessels, in January 2018.
She was hospitalized for a week and then bedridden for six months. Her medical needs made it necessary for her to drop out of college at McGill University. During this period, she said, many people in her life simply stopped checking in on her.
Now, as we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic and society tries to return to normal, Métraux is feeling left behind once more.
Rates of infection are falling, yet contracting even a mild case of the virus, said Métraux, who is fully vaccinated, could worsen her condition by wreaking havoc on her vascular system. And as institutions around her reduce or eliminate COVID-19 precautions, her concerns are increasing. For instance, the University of California, Berkeley, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in journalism, recently lifted its mask mandate.
“It’s really scary to me — almost traumatic — thinking that I could get sick again,” Métraux said.
As Jews from all walks of life confront a third year of life with the virus and its psychological, social, and economic effects, we asked a selection to share their insights. Some, like Métraux, focused on the need for society to continue caring for those most vulnerable to COVID-19. Others reflected on how the pandemic has prompted them to rethink what it means to live a full and Jewish life.
Altogether, they painted a picture of a Jewish community searching for joy and meaning after two years of profoundly disrupted personal and communal existence, as the U.S. hurtles toward a milestone of 1 million deaths from COVID-19. (The official global toll eclipsed 6 million earlier this month.)
“I don’t think we’ve fully processed the losses that we’ve sustained,” said Rabbi Joseph Ozarowski, author of “To Walk in God’s Ways: Jewish Pastoral Perspectives on Illness and Bereavement” and president of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains.
Yet Susan Einbinder, a Judaic studies professor at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, is trying to be optimistic. During waves of bubonic plague, she said, early modern Jewish communities kept praying, writing, building, getting married and having kids.
“The lesson from the past may be less about ‘Here comes the pandemic, and now what do we do?’ and more about ‘It’s here to stay, and what do we do?’” she said. “And where do we find the resilience, humility and compassion to live in a way we aspire to live as Jews and as human beings?”
Find meaning in trauma
Whenever something awful happens, April Baskin, formerly the Union for Reform Judaism’s czar for racial diversity, equity and inclusion work, says to herself, “I wonder what wonderful things will come of this.”
For Baskin, one blessing of an otherwise cataclysmic pandemic is that it helped bring to life a cherished vision.
She first founded the social justice organization Joyous Justice in 2019, shortly before she moved from the U.S. to Senegal, planning to travel back and forth between the two countries. But progress was slow.
In March 2020, days before her flight from Senegal, she learned that flights were being grounded due to concerns over COVID-19. Being forced to stay in one place, she said, brought her a new kind of focus. “God was indirectly saying, ‘Stop being afraid, believe in the beauty of your dreams and go for it — it’s kind of your only option,’” she said.
She started a podcast with Tracie Guy-Decker, then deputy director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, which the two use to unpack issues of race and racism. She coached clients on antiracist work. Requests for her services skyrocketed after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis triggered a nationwide reckoning with race.
For Baskin, who is Black and Cherokee, it reinforced the importance of the work the pandemic had prompted her to zero in on. “If we choose for it to be,” she said, “all shit can be fuel or fertilizer.”
Guy-Decker, who is white, first got involved with antiracist work during the 2015 Baltimore protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a Black man, from a spinal cord injury sustained while in police custody. Five years later, she knew she wanted to do more. And so she quit her museum job in October 2020 to join Baskin full-time.
A past version of herself, she said, would have found the idea of leaving a stable, brick-and-mortar job to help a friend with a startup completely absurd — especially with her husband on a Navy assignment in Bahrain, and an 8-year-old daughter at home. But the events of 2020 had given her a fresh perspective, and “it didn’t seem so absurd anymore,” she said. “It actually seemed like the most lucid thing I could do.”
She makes less money now, Guy-Decker said, but she can still make ends meet. She always thought she needed a traditional job to support her family, but she now recognizes that some of her limits were self-imposed.
For Guy-Decker, like Baskin, the stress of the pandemic proved clarifying; she now works toward making spaces more inclusive toward Jews of Color, work she sees as related to the Talmudic expression kol Yisra’el arevim ze baze, roughly translated as “all Jews are responsible for each other.” It’s a message the pandemic has made her take more seriously than ever.
“We all focus on actual dollars and cents,” she said, “but there are other currencies we trade in — including time, happiness and meaning.”
Learn to see the value in rest
When the pandemic struck, many Jewish (and non-Jewish) eateries suffered — but not Marisa Baggett’s Zayde’s NYC Deli in Memphis, Tenn. The kosher catering business thrived so much that around Passover 2021, Baggett expanded it, opening a restaurant.
It was exciting but overwhelming, and it took a serious illness for Baggett to realize her pace of work wasn’t sustainable — or fulfilling. She closed her restaurant in July 2021 to focus on her recovery, and is now establishing herself as a painter who tells stories from Torah and Talmud in a contemporary light.
Two years into the stresses of the pandemic, and often still fatigued since her illness, Baggett is happy with a slower pace of life. “The old me would’ve said, ‘In five years, I plan to blah blah,’ but for now, I’m enjoying the process and looking forward to seeing what happens,” she said. “When I look back at the idea of constantly being productive, I’m surprised I didn’t burn out sooner.”
Focusing on being alive, rather than pursuing achievement, is “kind of the essence of Torah,” she said.
Baggett connected her new lifestyle to the practice of shmita — a Biblically mandated sabbatical that occurs every seven years and begins on Rosh Hashanah. In the Torah, it is a time to forgive debts and let the land lie fallow but can, in broader terms, be viewed as a time of rest and renewal. (The world is currently in a shmita year.)
“I don’t think we’ve ever needed shmita as much as we do right now,” said Betsy Stone, a psychologist and adjunct lecturer at Hebrew Union College. “In the same way that muscles need to be stressed and rest to grow, people need to rest to be able to grow.”
COVID-19 has required a “phenomenally high level of adaptation,” Stone said, yet there’s been “no rest and reset time.”
“Many of us say things like, ‘There are other people who have it worse than I do,’ ‘I’m not food-insecure,’ or ‘I have a roof over my head,’ but it just layers shame on top of trauma,” Stone said. “It’s not productive.”
In support groups she leads, Stone is seeing, for instance, extreme stress and fatigue among rabbis, cantors and other Jewish professionals who have faced increased need among their congregations and, in making decisions about communal precautions, become impromptu epidemiologists. “The level of burnout for some is almost paralyzing,” she said.
“We’re going to see mental health issues coming out of this pandemic for at least a decade, and if we’re smart, we’ll begin to address those issues before they explode all over us — not after,” Stone said.
Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, noted that the past two years have “shaken loose” underlying issues like stress and burnout that existed long before the pandemic. The Reform rabbinical organization, she said, will continue to expand webinars, support groups, one-on-one counseling and other offerings to promote “rabbinic wellness.”
“It’s clear that rabbis need a tremendous amount of support, in both their personal and professional lives,” Person said. “The stronger rabbis are emotionally and spiritually, the stronger the communities they serve can be.”
Take solace in community
Rabbi Susan Grossman, one of the Conservative Movement’s first woman rabbis, is set to retire in June after 25 years of service at Beth Shalom Congregation, a Conservative shul in Columbia, Md.
She’ll also step down from an unusually long 30-year tenure on the Conservative Judaism Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, through which she has helped shape the movement’s policies regarding COVID-19.
Despite the tragedies of the pandemic, Grossman stressed that the last two years have also brought forth the possibility of transformation. She noted that the so-called “Greatest Generation” — the Americans who grew up during the Great Depression and fought in World War II — were “incredibly able to cope and also the most generous and considerate generation.”
We can find peace, she said, in avodah and chesed — service and acts of loving kindness, respectively — by showing empathy and compassion not just for fellow Jews but for all of our neighbors.
Part of that process: Learning to reinforce the strength of our communities, even and especially under difficult circumstances.
“Jews who feel like they’re part of a Jewish community feel less isolated and cope better than those who are not part of a Jewish community,” said Eva Fogelman, a psychologist in private practice in New York.
Fogelman says that lesson will be particularly important to remember as we enter the third year of the pandemic. A group of experts recently warned that despite a broad nationwide relaxing of precautions, “the nation is not yet at the next normal.” The group, which includes former leaders of the CDC, cautioned that the virus is not yet at low enough levels to be considered “endemic,” and that more research into long COVID is needed.
Additionally, the possibility of future surges and variants remains. While nearly two-thirds of American adults are fully vaccinated, only 41% of children ages 5 to 17 are fully vaccinated. About 20 million children under 5, who are not yet eligible for vaccination, remain unprotected. And at least 7 million immunocompromised adults live in the U.S. “I really hope that people are willing to do the bare minimum to protect each other,” said Métraux, who is immunocompromised.
Luckily, Fogelman said, “we have developed these creative, innovative ways of being apart yet being together.”
And as Einbinder, the UConn professor, pointed out, Jews have been overcoming obstacles to gathering for centuries. During a bout of plague in 1631, she said, Jews in Padua, Italy were told to pray from their windows and recite the vidui, the deathbed confession, from their doorways, with witnesses stationed in the street. “They didn’t have the Internet,” she said, drawing a connection to Jewish communities’ quick pivot to virtual offerings early in the COVID-19 pandemic, “but they used physical space in creative ways.” And the Jewish community remains creative. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has recently ruled that even after the public health threat of COVID-19 has ended, Jews can continue to use technology to make a minyan.
“There’s amazing resilience in Judaism,” Grossman said. “Whatever we’ve experienced, we don’t wallow in it. We learn how to make ourselves and the world a better place because of it.”