On November 18, 1656, Jacob Zahalon, a rabbi and a doctor, stood in an apartment in an Italian ghetto, shouting out a window to deliver his Hannukah sermon. Below him stood a number of Jews, unable to enter the synagogue. Why? The bubonic plague was afflicting the community, and no one was officially allowed to gather together.
In his account of the plague, Rabbi Zahalon reports that he did the same thing the following week from another house. People were only allowed outside to see a doctor or to get food; that’s when they snuck this opportunity to listen to words of Torah. Anyone caught outside at night was arrested.
Delivering a sermon out the window is perhaps the 17th century’s equivalent of the Zoom Beit Midrash; an innovative adaptation of Jewish living to the needs of the moment. Like so many others since the outbreak of coronavirus, the Hadar Institute, an organization devoted to fostering Jewish learning and community, has shifted its learning online. We have multiple opportunities to learn every week, in classes ranging from 15 minutes to half a day. We have a much wider audience, from all parts of the globe, and have connected to people who can’t come and learn with us in person in immersive programs. Online learning makes a deep impact, and I can’t imagine a future without a significant roster of Zoom classes at Hadar.
It is certainly easy to imagine we are never going back to the old ways. So many of us were caught off guard by this threat, and we don’t want to be naïve now. So we make predictions of fundamentally different ways the human race will behave following this crisis.
But for all the talk of the “new normal,” I believe there will – eventually – be a return to the basic mode of human connection: community fostered in gatherings with close physical contact. For all the Jewish people have suffered in plagues and disruptions, we have always returned to our structures of in-person community: the yeshiva, the synagogue, the meals.
We know that nothing is quite as transformational in Jewish life today as an immersive experience. The success of Birthright Israel, summer camp, and even short-term retreats have demonstrated this time and again.
At Hadar, we have seen the power of immersion over the last decade and a half. In a recently completed four-year evaluation by Rosov Consulting, we learned that participants in immersive experiences not only had “extremely meaningful experiences,” but also leave with “takeaways that resonate in their lives for a long time after the program has finished.” In the case of our work, those takeaways include an ability and motivation to “engage with Jewish learning on their own.” Specifically: two months after the program concluded, 94% of our participants said they were motivated to continue learning Jewish topics; eight months later, the number remained the same. The impact of immersive experiences doesn’t end when you return home.
So what can we do now? We can work to support institutions that provide immersive experiences, with dollars and encouragement. But maybe the most important thing we can do is remember their power. One of the destabilizing aspects of this plague is how easy it is to forget our former lives: the tactile experience of cramming into a space, excited for what lies ahead.
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In 2014, one of our Hadar alumni recorded the sound of the learning in our Beit Midrash. A few weeks into coronavirus, he sent it out to our alumni listserv, hoping to bring “a little bit of sunshine.” I have listened to it, to remind myself of the audio experience of learning in community; it is a reminder of what we took for granted, but also what will return.
The plague in Rabbi Zahalon’s community - and the quarantine - lasted for nine months. But then what happened? Rabbi Zahalon writes: “Israel returned to the synagogues to pray, as in the days of old, to give thanks to God.”
Now is the time to shout from apartment windows in order to study; we have no other choice. But one day this will end, and we will gather together “as in the days of old.”
In this moment of separation, I am inviting us to hold onto the promise of in-person, immersive Jewish community. It is ancient, it is powerful, and, when the time is right, it will return.
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is President and CEO of the Hadar Institute.
We will - we must - gather again. One day.
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is co-founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar. Elie has previously worked as a journalist, banker, and corporate fraud investigator. He completed his doctorate in liturgy at the Jewish Theological Seminary and is a co-founder of the independent minyan Kehilat Hadar. He was selected as an inaugural AVI CHAI Fellow and is the author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Jewish Lights, 2010).