From the start of the COVID-19 High Holiday season, I dreaded Simchat Torah.
I knew that Rosh Hashanah in lockdown wouldn’t be an issue for me. Being a rabbi has its perks — I’m familiar with the prayer service, amused by my own off-key singing and accustomed to blowing the Shofar for my family every year.
I was similarly unfazed by the prospect of Yom Kippur in solitude. I missed the camaraderie of the quorum, but a day spent in private prayer was deeply meaningful to me.
Before Sukkot, I built a simple sukkah for just my immediate family and didn’t struggle with the technically complex mega-sukkah of previous years. My lulav, which usually takes quite a beating — shaken within an inch of its life by hundreds of enthusiastic Jewish people — made it all the way through this past Sukkot with its fronds intact.
But Simchat Torah is different. It’s a day that, for me and millions of other Jewish people, is characterized by joyous abandon — passing a Torah scroll back and forth between a tightly-packed group of dancing, singing, inebriated friends. During a pandemic, that behavior is not only inadvisable from a medical perspective, it’s indefensible from a Jewish legal perspective.
And yet, this Simchat Torah I did just that — after 14 days of quarantine for my family and a negative COVID test for me, we traveled to my hometown in Cherry Hill, New Jersey to spend Simchat Torah with parents in the Chabad House of my childhood. I danced and sang in a large group, without sacrificing an iota of Jewish law or even the Jewish spirit of the day, and with total compliance with medical guidelines.
What it took to make that possible was incredible creativity, diligence, and concern for safety on the part of the Chabad Lubavitch representatives to Camden and Burlington Counties, Rabbi Mendy and Dinie Mangel.
The entire service was held outdoors, in a large parking lot adjacent to the Chabad Center. Folding chairs seated about 50 on either side of a simple mechitza of fabric draped over metal poles. A makeshift wooden ark held the Torah scrolls at the far eastern end of the parking lot.
Every chair was positioned at least six feet from every other chair, everyone was required to wear a mask at all times (and when some individuals dared tuck their masks below their noses, they were sternly told to raise their masks or leave the premises). Placed strategically every few yards, as well as next to the ark, were a number of multi-gallon jugs of high-alcohol solution for regular handwashing.
Right before kiddush, Mrs. Mangel and her army of children rolled five large tables to the parking lot and covered them with food — each item individually packaged, down to the flatware.
One table held bagels in plastic boxes. Another, tiny containers of either a portion of lox or two pieces of herring. Cream cheese in individual packets. Alcoholic beverages, for adults, in the sort of tiny bottles found in hotel mini-fridges.
I took my family to a far corner of the parking lot, a good 20 feet from anyone else, where we lowered our masks and ate and drank with the community all around us, at a safe distance. My mother, who had been strictly adhering to COVID guidelines since March, said that this was the first time she had felt alive in months.
Then, masks back in position, we returned to the center of the parking lot. Rabbi Mangel passed out pre-cut six-foot-long lines of yellow rope. If you wanted to dance with someone outside of your immediate family, you threw them a rope and revelled at social distance.
Some twirled beneath their ends of the rope or yanked on them playfully, a lively pandemic-inspired Mitzvah Tantz. Others used the ropes to link families in a large circle. In the middle, at least six feet from anyone else, masked individuals danced with the Torah scrolls. Anyone who wanted to hold a Torah scroll was required to wash his hands with alcohol solution before and after.
In a word, about 100 Jewish men, women and children danced and ate and celebrated together, in person. And they did so with masks, outdoors, at least six feet from anyone else.
This is what authentic Judaism looks like. It is the Judaism of the Talmud — creative, yet compliant; careful consideration of medical guidelines, consultation with experts, and genuine concern for both health and holiday giving birth to a novel approach that honors G-d while protecting His people. It is the Judaism of exile. Uncompromising as a Russian refusnik (the idea of a Zoom celebration or cancelling outright was never considered) yet resourceful as an Israeli kibbutznik (take-home herring packages? Mini-vodka bottles? Pre-cut rope?!).
Extreme approaches would have been so much easier. Some communities, doubtless, cancelled their programs out of an abundance of caution or went virtual. Easier, but ultimately ineffective. You cannot capture the spirit of Simchat Torah over a video chat.
Others, I am sure, carried on in-person with minimal (or no) precautions, as though an unpredictable pandemic hadn’t already killed more than 200,000 people in the United States. Also simple, but ultimately inexcusable. No amount of dance or prayer can atone for the sin of so drastically cheapening human life.
But our approach worked, and we need to demand that our rabbis and community leaders emulate it. It is not enough to make a token request for mask compliance. It is also not enough to shut down synagogues and rely on Zoom to keep the fires of Judaism burning through a plague. Our community leaders need to consult with medical experts and hatch plans that protect both the sanctity of our holy days and the sanctity of human life.
It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. Because we who have been sustained by Torah for 3,500 years, know that Judaism is not a mere hobby — it’s an essential service. And the very hallmark of that essential Judaism is the creativity and sensitivity that I saw in New Jersey this Simchat Torah. Where Chabad found a way, mid-pandemic, to safely draw 100 Jews into the circle.
Joshua A. Krisch is a Chabad rabbi and science journalist currently writing for Rockefeller University. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, and The Atlantic.