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Facing the Delta variant, my congregants are lonely and afraid. We are making hard choices together

As a rabbi, I want to do the right thing for my congregation. But what is the right thing?

I am the spiritual leader of a small synagogue in Sarasota, Fla. My congregation is older, and the COVID-19 pandemic has been especially devastating to them. The unexpected isolation was bad enough, but when it continued month after month after month, it became a gruesome reminder that time was slipping through their fingers.

The moment vaccines were available, my congregants rushed to get shots. They’ve been delighted to travel this summer to visit family, hug grandkids and begin to feel normal again. This spring, we found a new physical home for our congregation, and we had planned to resume in-person services later this month.

But just when we thought the end of the pandemic was in sight, the Delta variant came along and left us unsure about the right next steps.

Jewish tradition, unlike American law, centers communal needs over individual freedoms. Though my congregants are lonely and isolated, as a rabbi, it is my responsibility to put collective safety first. This year, that means doing the hard thing and staying physically separated, even though it comes at a cost.

One way we have centered communal needs this year was creating a COVID-19 Task Force of physicians, members, and me. In mid-July, a physician member wrote to me extremely worried about the rise of the Delta variant, and suggested that we immediately cancel in-person High Holiday services. The task force met the very next day and unanimously agreed that the physician’s concerns were justified. I sent an email telling the congregation that we were cancelling all in-person services.

It will not be easy for us. The majority of my congregants have no local family in Florida. We rely on one another for friendship and support, as well as for a spiritual home where we can pray together. My congregants’ emotions range from fear to frustration to sorrow to anger, and back to fear again. But I think that most of all, they are angry at what has been taken from them: the precious time they have with one another.

I am angry, too. Angry that my congregation is threatened because other people won’t get vaccinated; angry that my congregant who had a kidney transplant and stayed at his Boston home last winter is afraid to come back to Florida; angry that other immuno-compromised congregants are living in fear once again. Angry that I can’t give them what they want and in many ways, deeply need.

I was hopeful, and now I’m not — and that makes me angry, too.

This pandemic is stretching on so much longer than we ever imagined. I find myself unsure from day to day what the best decision is.

But I’ve realized that when we rely on one another, we don’t have to know exactly what’s coming next to make the right decision. We can be frustrated and angry while still figuring out the best plan given the circumstances. I’ve realized that my job as a pandemic-era rabbi is to bring together the people who can, with wisdom and relevant experience, make the best decision for the community based on whatever scant evidence is available.

It’s not my job to know everything, but rather to shine the lights of hope and community and God’s love along the dark path as we find our way.

I know the people in my congregation have my back, just as I have theirs. We have spent 17 months supporting each other on Zoom, over the phone and in socially distanced backyard gatherings. If it rains, we grab our masks and run inside.

Though we may be afraid, we will figure this out, together.

Rabbi Jennifer Singer has served Congregation Kol HaNeshama in Sarasota Florida for 10 of its 13 years.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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