In this new era of virtual reunions, my rabbinical school classmates recently started a Whatsapp group. Ten weeks ago, we started with personal news, some joyous and some sorrowful. Conversation was lighthearted, rabbis in the field enjoying some rare moments of social connection. Little did we know, little did all of us know, how quickly the conversation would turn.
As Covid-19 hit worldwide, the rabbi Whatsapp discussion drastically shifted. “Whose Shabbat service is going online? How do we help mourners navigate Kaddish? What about funerals?” School rabbis began to wonder about online learning, zoom tefillot, and virtual community building. Camp rabbis were stuck, left to posit whether summer memories would manifest at all. And as the weeks drag by, the questions grow with uncertainty, anxiety, and frustration. It is no longer whether the Jewish community, worldwide will suffer from the economic ramifications of this pandemic. Rather, the question becomes, how much?
At the end of every Jewish wedding ceremony, the couple breaks the infamous glass. Shattering into pieces too small to count, the rabbi often describes the ritual as a reminder of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. We remember the diaspora of our people and decentralization of the Jewish faith for thousands of years. While I am wary of the comparison of this time to the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, there is a stark reality painted before our eyes: if the Jewish community does not remain committed to Jewish professionals, Jewish schools, and Jewish institutions, Judaism as we know will destabilize. A weakening unlike anything we have ever seen. A clamoring for resources instead of a necessary move to step forward, brainstorming ways to grow stronger, to emerge together. Now is not the time to defame movements, criticize political views, or attack methods of worship. Now is the time to let our Jewish leaders know, while we may not physically gather, the Jewish community is present, strong, and more committed than ever before.
The Talmud reminds us that after the destruction of the Temple, Jews were inspired to create a mikdash me’at, a miniature sanctuary. Ezekiel reads, “Yet I have been to them as a little sanctuary in the countries where they have come.” The rabbis interpreted this phrase as the need to extend God’s presence through the building of synagogues and halls for study. Centralized locations where Jews would gather, meet, create families, banter, pour over Torah, nosh challah, celebrate, cry, learn and embrace. Shul, camp, school, Hillels, shtiebels, JCCs — the current versions of the mikdash me’at. The places in where adults and children explore their relationships with God, discover faith, and learn the value of Jewish community.
In a recent online class, I asked the question, “Now that we must move away from the synagogue, for an undetermined amount of time, what exactly does one need to create a mikdash me’at… at home?” Some suggested a room for books, others described the Shabbat dinner table as what brings holiness into their homes. But repeatedly, the conversation returned to the image of the ner tamid, a continuous flame that required meticulous care to ensure its everlasting presence.
Tehillim reminds us, “Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light for my path.” Meaning, it has always been the light of Torah that propels our community. For thousands of years, we are held together by a thread of divine light that urges us to bring blessing and goodness into this world. It is easy to take this light for granted. Whether it was the High Priest that was committed to the kindling of the ner tamid, the rabbis of the Talmud that were devoted to a resurgence of learning and interpretation, or Jewish leaders of the modern era that have built innovative centers for adults and children to wrestle with their faith, the light has never wavered. Quite the contrary: it is that very light that brightens our homes when so many of us feel consumed by this current plague of darkness.
But now, I call on you. Members of the Jewish community, I am speaking to each of you. The beacons of light upon which so many rely are threatening to vanish. Clergy are turning to each other, wondering about the future, hopeful that you too, will stand with us, ensuring the vibrancy of Judaism for millennia to come.
After the pandemic dissipates, will our Jewish institutions ever look the same? It is hard to know and difficult to predict. But as your Jewish leaders remain draped in uncertainty, it is time for every Jew to raise their hand and declare a personal commitment to the future of the Jewish people. It will only be with you in which the ner tamid remains lit, offering the kind of fire and hope we all need to survive these unprecedented times.
Imagine the fragments of the glass at the end of the wedding. Many couples have the new ritual of keeping the shards in a mezuzah or picture frame, a reminder of the wedding to cherish within their home. A constant reminder of how easily something can break without tender devotion, thoughtful care, and endless love.
This cannot be the time in which the Jewish community shrinks away, returning when the world looks a little safer, feels a little brighter. This cannot be the time in which we say to ourselves, “Let someone else build it for me.” This cannot be the time in which we let the fire that sustains our faith burn out.
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This cannot be the message other generations use to describe us.
Let us each find a way to remain committed to sustaining the Jewish people. Do everything in your power to join a synagogue. Call your camp directors and let them know they are not alone. Reach out to Hillels and remind them of their worth. Keep your child’s Jewish education alive and vibrant. Let your school administrators and educators know that you do not want to take this year “off”. It will be a struggle. But give your Jewish leaders the confidence in knowing that you want to struggle with us. May our children and grandchildren look back at this moment with honor and pride.
Yes, the world grew dark. But it was our light that brightened the way.
Rabbi Nicole Guzik has served as a rabbi at Sinai Temple for ten years. She focuses on innovative women’s programming, young family retention and recruitment, and supervises Beit Bracha, Sinai Temple’s mainstreamed religious school for children with special needs.
Rabbi Guzik also writes a weekly Torah commentary in the Jewish Journal, A Bisl Torah.