I live in New Zealand, which has many advantages. It’s beautiful – green hills, dramatic mountains and spectacular water — mostly safe, run by a sane government and still has a semblance of egalitarianism. But we are also a small island nation at the southern tip of the Pacific Ocean, removed from the centres of Jewish life. Our access to Jewish events, learning and culture is limited.
Bridging that gap has been a big part of my life, most significantly with the creation (along with a few dedicated others) of Limmud NZ, the New Zealand version of the worldwide Jewish learning community/event. Through Limmud we have been able to bring amazing presenters to New Zealand and feel more connected to the Jewish world. But distance, cost and numbers constrain our opportunities. Almost every Israeli I have ever approached to come here has said to me — as if I might not have noticed — “But it’s so far — it’s two 12-hour flights!”
The lockdown imposed due to coronavirus changed my place in the world. I didn’t move very far physically – in fact lockdown here was quite restrictive, with no physical contact outside our own household (termed our “bubble”) and no travel beyond our neighbourhood. And so, for seven weeks, the only people I physically interacted with were my husband and kids, with a couple of waves to friends from our front door.
Initially, my online life was just a socially-distanced and quieter version of my pre-Covid real life;luckily I was able to continue my work almost unchanged from home. But quite quickly I realised that one aspect of my life had expanded exponentially: my opportunities for Jewish engagement. Suddenly my options were boundless, made possible by the movement of communal life to an entirely online experience.
I started with Zooming in to local shul services — I’ll confess I love being able to listen to the service while still running around cooking Shabbat dinner, plus not going anywhere on Friday night is a bonus as far as I am concerned. But one day I saw a Facebook invite to a Kabbalat Shabbat service for a shul I’ve always wanted to go to, a thousand miles away in Melbourne, Australia (our nearest neighbour), being led by friends even further away, in Jerusalem.
Brilliant, I thought.
I’ll tune in.
And so it started. I have sung along (badly, but no-one noticed thanks to the mute button) at Kabbalat Shabbat in Costa Rica, which conveniently is on around midday Saturday here. I was excited to participate in my first-ever Limmud China, attending a session on the Jewish refugee community in Shanghai during the war along with my mother who was born in that community and tuned in from a different city. I registered for Limmud Manchester – not on my bucket list to physically visit, but with a great line-up of sessions on offer.
The invites kept coming in; in that eerie-but-sometimes-handy way we are watched online, I got invited to listen to a Ha’aretz panel on the new government in Israel, was fascinated by a live advice session from Natan Sharansky on surviving lockdown (spoiler: he had it harder than we did) and joined a Jewish food festival, which felt like eavesdropping on Ruth Reichl and Joan Nathan chatting.
And the best wasgetting to interview the amazing journalist and podcaster Dina Kraft in Tel Aviv as part of the first ever joint Limmud Oz+NZ (Australia and New Zealand, in case you were wondering) — held entirely online over two weekends in June.
For the first time, I have had exactly the same access to Jewish events, learning and connection that everyone else has. When a service or a lecture is on Zoom, it does not matter whether you are in the next room, the next suburb or some little country at the bottom of the world with a total Jewish population of about 5000 people. The only constraint has been time differences – I’ve done a lot of early morning and late night Zooming.
In addition to the actual events I have enjoyed, the deeper thrill has been the feeling of belonging that access creates, especially when it is on an equal footing to other participants. I feel like I have moved from behind a fairly solid upstairs mechitzah — a barrier used to separate men’s and women’s sections in synagogues — to a front row seat downstairs near the action. It’s great to be able to actually see and hear - but more than that, it is affirming to feel like I belong.
In reflecting on the lockdown experience, I am not the first or only person to observe that, while it was profoundly isolating, it was also oddly uniting. As we move back to a more normal world, I am hoping that some of the connections I made and the openness to ways of connecting will be sustained, especially in the Jewish world. While this came about due to necessity, I hope that we can seize it as a positive development.
Yes, I want to get back on that plane (those two planes) to Israel some time soon, but my day-to-day life is here in New Zealand. I’d like to maintain my place in the front row of Jewish life, right here from my living room.
Tanya Thomson is a lawyer and member of the Jewish community of Auckland, New Zealand. She is passionate about building Jewish connections and has held many community roles facilitating this, including being the co-founder of Limmud NZ. Tanya can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.