What would’ve happened if the ancient Israelites had endured the coronavirus pandemic? If they were told to stay inside and completely alter their daily lives: no visits to markets, temples or anywhere else? This would have challenged them, no doubt, but would we, their descendants, still be talking about it today?
Every year, we remember the trials and tribulations of our ancestors with holidays such as Passover, Tisha B’Av or Hanukkah. We mark innately Jewish communal and historical events. Many American Jews also celebrate secular national holidays like Thanksgiving.
But would there ever come a time when we’d commemorate an even more universal event? One that touched every person worldwide? This global pandemic could provide an opportunity to connect and remember for people all around the world, however sad the occasion.
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Jewish holidays are designed to create a separate moment from the mundane and everyday, allowing us to transcend our routines by collectively signifying a challenging or significant event in our history, and by observing rituals and traditions connecting us to that event and our historic ability to overcome those challenges, survive and thrive. We also use these occasions to take lessons into the future.
If we were to create a new, Jewishly-inspired commemoration of the pandemic, in order to teach future generations what we endured, it might look something like this:
There must be a meal. During the meal it will be customary to wash your hands with soap and water multiple times while singing to various tunes that last for at least 20 seconds, like the chorus of “Miriam’s Song.” Or use the holy hand sanitizer.
The traditional centerpiece of the meal will be homemade sourdough.
One will be required to videoconference the dinner with relatives and friends.
No leaving the house for any non-essential activities. “Essential activities” is purposely left vague to allow our children’s children to be abundantly confused for years to come, as all of us were in the beginning, and, of course, to encourage debate.
Professional haircuts — or any personal care outside of the home — won’t be permitted.
The use of technology such as smartphones will, however, be permissible and even encouraged.
No more than 10 people will be allowed at any dinner (outside of immediate family).
More seriously, this holiday would teach us to be more grateful for what we have. In our worlds, at least until this pandemic forced us to all be less physically connected and less frenetic, we often didn’t stop and think about all we are given. The daily things we are most thankful for, like a fridge full of food, friends and family, a roof over our heads. And this pandemic has also provided new opportunities to pursue creative endeavors and hobbies, or allowed us to focus on simple acts like going for walks. In short, we’ve been reminded each day to stop and take stock of what is important to us, what we have and how we want to improve ourselves.
While there is much for which we can be grateful, any future commemoration would also recall the hardships. The profound losses of loved ones, of work and of our ability to move about freely.
As Hillel professionals, we watched helplessly as our students struggled with this pandemic. Freshmen, having just survived their first semester, had to relearn how to navigate the challenges of the university world, but from a virtual realm. Sophomores and juniors found themselves losing internships and job opportunities. Seniors had college-culminating traditions taken from them. There wouldn’t even be a chance to say goodbye to friends. The independence our students had gained was gone as they returned to their childhood homes, unable to leave. Family dynamics changed as people found themselves cooped up and unable to find a quiet space for themselves.
We wait anxiously for the day when our Hillel students can return to our campuses for Shabbat dinners, weekly programming and bagel brunches. Once we return to normal — and we will at some point — this holiday could remind all of us of a moment in history that challenged us, but one from which we not only overcame, but made the world a better place.
Sydney Harlow is Program Director at Gulf Coast Hillel, serving New College of Florida, Ringling College of Art + Design, and the Univ. of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.
Matt Lorch is Executive Director at Bradley University Hillel, in Peoria, Illinois.