A Rabbi in Lockdown

“Suddenly we found ourselves frantically reorganizing and rethinking absolutely everything we normally do as a community”. Rabbi Kathleen de Magtige-Middleton of Mosaic Reform reflects on the impact of lockdown.

‘Unprecedented’ seemed to be the most frequently used word at the beginning of lockdown. It stood for all the words and feelings we weren’t able to express or didn’t even know we were feeling: fear, uncertainty and the oppressive sense of being under attack by an invisible, unknown enemy, which baffled the scientists, brought economies to a halt and entire countries to a standstill.

After SARS, MERS and Ebola, we were not unaware of the possible threat of a pandemic, but we could never really envisage how it would affect our own lives. When Covid19 first entered our borders, there were still a lot of unknown factors and conflicting messages. As numbers of affected people rose we tried to respond with ever stricter measures: we advised congregants to wash their hands upon entering the building. Shaking hands, kissing and hugging were discouraged, later banned and kiddushim restricted and eventually stopped. Each time we introduced a new measure we seemed to be behind the curve of the pandemic.

2020 being our biggest B’nei Mitzvah year for decades, we were looking forward to a cohort of B’nei Mitzvah. Having trained two of the spring B’nei Mitzvah myself, I felt their anxiety mounting as the big day they had been planning started to shrink with every restriction issued by the government.

At first we thought we would be able to allow fewer, but socially distanced, guests. Then we thought we could allow family only, or perhaps we could deliver a Scroll to their home and I would be able to conduct the service at their home, but then the whole country went into lockdown. Personally, I found it particularly hard to deal with their disappointment, because I felt a deep sense of guilt. It just so happened that my daughter had celebrated her Bat Mitzvah only just before all this happened. We had been so lucky to have had our simchah, and the others were sadly robbed of theirs. In hindsight I realise that both the community and my entire family could have been exposed to the virus, as I had family traveling from all over Europe, and although we had decided that there was to be no handshaking, hugging and kissing, we found out that, being emotional human beings, not doing so is quite impossible at a proud and happy occasion such as a Bat Mitzvah.

With the announcement of the lockdown we suddenly found ourselves frantically reorganizing and rethinking absolutely everything we normally do as a community. How do we celebrate lifecycle events such as a Bar Mitzvah without being able to gather? How do we keep the community going; have services, meet people, celebrate the festivals and educate both children and adults?

Of course the most important aspect of a Jewish community is social contact: that is why a Synagogue is first and foremost a beit k’nesset (a house of gathering) and even activities such as learning and praying should be done in the presence of others; learning should be done with a chavruta (a learning partner) and prayer in a minyan (a quorum of ten). And beyond these traditional requirements for a community, we very much realized that it is human nature to gather in times of crisis.  As more people got infected and died, it was inevitable that our community would soon start to suffer losses too – and we needed to work out how we could the provide the support and community that is needed at such times, when we weren’t even allowed to leave our homes except for the most essential shopping? How would we be sure that even the most vulnerable were safe, well cared for and well supplied? All these questions needed to be answered and sorted in the space of days.

The answer seemed simple: we ought to still meet but do so online. From the safety of our own homes, we could still meet to study and to pray with the help of online platforms we hadn’t really used before. And with the technical knowhow, imagination, and dedication of a few very skilled members: we  moved absolutely everything we normally did as a community online: services, even those B’nei Mitzvah, which were both wonderfully happy occasions, at a very sad and uncertain time.

And as we moved everything online, we noticed to our astonishment that more people connected than would have otherwise; we celebrated Seder online with at least 3 times the normal attendance, we held a beautiful, moving online Yom HaShoah service, attended by nearly 100 members and we all sang ‘We’ll Meet Again’ together at the joyous and poignant VE Day service.  And as we learned to work with Zoom for services, and the community got more used to it, more and more of what we normally do in our building moved online too: JACS meetings, community quizzes, and cooking demonstrations, interviews, lectures, adult education and even HaMakom, our Religion School, gathered again online.

Yet, no matter what we can offer online, no remote service, no matter how well conducted, can ever take the place of being there in person when saying goodbye to our loved ones, and yet that was what we were forced to ask the mourners to do as well. It was by far the hardest thing to do as a Rabbi, knowing how painful it must be for the mourners, to leave the last mitzvah  of levayat ha-met  (accompanying the one who has died to their place of rest) to the Rabbi. It was such a heavy burden for the undertakers and myself, to carry that responsibility and the pain on behalf of the mourners, aware of the double bereavement the mourners must be feeling of having been bereft of the chance of saying goodbye, and the loneliness of the ‘met’ – the deceased – members we knew and cared about, who deserved so much better.

Yet as painful as those ‘zoom funerals’ were, the zoom shivah prayers came as a bit of a surprise…  It had worried me that online we would not be able to provide the comfort of simply being with the mourners that a shivah normally brings. However, I noticed that the online shivah provided a different sense of comfort in the fact that they proved to be much more intimate affairs than a shivah normally is. Not only did they offer the opportunity for far-off or quite frail family and friends to attend, which added extra support and a sense of connection for the mourners, but it also gave a much better view of those delivering the eulogies; a sharing of deepest emotion, and coming together in support and closeness I had not imagined possible in an online gathering.

Yet of all the things that have been difficult about lockdown, by far the most difficult has been simply being a connected human being, a wife and mother as well as a Rabbi. Being a wife, mother and Rabbi have always been about juggling various responsibilities, but in a situation where all boundaries have disappeared, where home has become the office, the synagogue, the classroom as well as my children’s classroom, playroom, cub camp, laboratory, atelier, kitchen and so much more … doing so  has been even more complicated and demanding. Trying to chair a full day online Beit Din for example and not trying to be distracted when children slip little notes under the door  with ‘how much longer?’ or ‘will you come on a walk with us when you’re finished?’ not to mention the stress of homeschooling or dealing with the children’s anxieties because their GCSE’s, Israel tours, proms and other things have been cancelled, because they haven’t seen their friends for ages, are worried about elderly relatives catching the virus,  because they are bored and they worry whether the world will ever go back to normal again.

But even when the lockdown ends, I believe the impact of Covid19 will stay with us for a while. As a community we will have to get used to a new normal and adapt to the challenges this poses as well as we can, creating the strongest sense of community in the safest possible way. As the Rabbi of Mosaic Reform I feel immensely proud and moved by the way our community has risen to the challenge, and I have absolute faith that, with the resilience and invention we have already shown, we will emerge  together safely from the crisis.

June 17, 2020