The unprecedented nature of what we’re experiencing and its radical implication for virtually every aspect of our individual and collective lives means that we cannot yet say how our reality will be permanently altered in the wake of the coronavirus. But there is one realization from this still early chapter of the story we’re living through: What will be required of us is a measure both of creativity and innovation beyond anything we have been called to exercise in recent memory.
It will also require a humility about what we can no longer accomplish on our own, and most of all, an acceptance of the interdependence we will have to embrace to accomplish much of anything at all.
Before, we had challenges that were largely definable and addressable, with a bit of effort. We would throw a plan together, establish urgency, secure investment – and we’d move forward. Now, the challenges are so immense that they impact us all and cannot be deterred without the collective will and determined focus of our entire society.
One example: Less than six months ago, Jewish communities were fixated on rising anti-Semitism. The dominant concern was that, for the lack of an ability to guarantee our physical safety, our members would stop participating in communal gatherings like synagogue services. Today, because of an inability as a society to secure all people’s health and safety, nearly every religious and communal building, universally and not just for us targets of anti-Semites, is closed to business.
There are, today, countless examples where we can no longer offer “the solution” to the problem because the problem has become far more expansive, vast and unknowable. We have no definitive answers to draw upon from our frame of experience and memory.
This is not to say that anti-Semitism, for example, has gone away amidst COVID. On the contrary, online extremism is rising, Jewish elected officials are being targeted (along with women in high office) with particularly scurrilous attacks, and Nazi imagery is being centered in terrifying mob gatherings against state leaders.
But what has changed is a newfound humility about the scope and scale of the threats that ail our world and impact the daily lives of every one of us. And what has changed is a newfound humility that, while we might be able to meet challenges like the physical security of a building, unless we act with unified purpose, we won’t succeed in tackling this massive assault on every aspect of our lives that must be solved before we can gather again.
There is hope. We have been a part of an awe-inspiring willingness and ability of millions of people to make enormous sacrifices to flatten the curve and care for each other. States are coming together in compacts with each other and innovative private partnerships.
In Massachusetts, Jews and Muslims and Christians are working together to support our elected leaders and to demand action for the most vulnerable – who are themselves very often the “essential” workers in these times: the grocery workers, nursing home attendants, and others who make it possible for us to shelter.
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Even while apart, we’re deepening bonds of commonality and building recognition that we’re all in this together and won’t get through it without all our efforts.
Because one thing hasn’t changed: The enduring values that define us.
From the Jewish perspective, the teachings of Rabbi Hillel, two millennia ago, resonate again: “If I am not for myself, who will be? And, if I am only for myself, what am I?”
This idea of the Jewish self in the world has carried us through centuries of turmoil, hardships, and joys. It informs our ability to carry on with courage and humility, and with the understanding that we must, with more urgency than ever, stand for collective action in partnership with all our sheltered neighbors.
And,“if not now, when?”
Jeremy Burton is the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, defining and advancing the values, interests and priorities of the organized Jewish community of Greater Boston in the public square.
A newfound humility: We’re in this together.