The hardest part of the pandemic is right now

Less than an hour before the funeral of a key synagogue board member, I am informed that the grandson of the deceased is COVID positive. Complicating matters still, the entire family including the grandson had been living together, unmasked, for several days beforehand. What to do?

Besides wanting to crawl under a rock, we could use the lessons compiled over the past two years and come up with a solution. Getting as many of our synagogue team members together as possible, we discussed our options. We could:

Move the entire service outside.Have only the immediate family come in for the service.Bring people in, but keep them at a far distance from the family.

We settled on C, informing anyone who came in of the situation, and allowing them to choose whether they felt comfortable entering the building. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best possible option.

In truth, as a synagogue rabbi, the hardest part of the pandemic was not March of 2020, nor our first High Holy Days last year, nor any other point in our first COVID year. The hardest part of the pandemic is right now.

Unclear mask mandates, vaccine hesitancy and the Delta strain raging across the country, have made decision making a perilous proposition. A year and a half of COVID protocols have worn all of us down and do not appear to be easing up any time soon. Overall, we are all exhausted.  

Rabbi Emily Cohen put it best. In a Sept. 5, 2021 article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency: “My brain is mush. My heart is broken. And I know I’m not the only one. The truth is that, after this year, not a single one of us is really OK.”

It really hit me in late August when all of our High Holy Day plans were suddenly up in the air. Way back in May, we had decided this was the year to go back inside. Last year, all events had either been in Zoom, streamed or outside.  This year we wanted to nudge congregants back into the synagogue sanctuary.

Now, a week before Rosh Hashanah, that no longer seemed like the best of ideas. In several emergency Zoom meetings, we tried to thread the needle between the anti-vaxxers who were threatening to leave if we made vaccination mandatory, and our health professionals who were insisting on a more aggressive approach. We decided on a detailed letter which encouraged vulnerable congregants to stay home. Instead of trying to fill our sanctuary, we were trying to empty it out. Masks would be required at all services regardless.

The letter worked like a charm, cutting our expected attendance per service in half. Hundreds more joined us virtually. All in all, it was not a perfect plan, but it was the right one for us. Our congregants felt listened to and cared for.

This has consistently been the case over the course of the entire pandemic. Over and over, they have let us know how grateful they have been for all we have offered. Instead of being impatient, they were forgiving. As much as they felt supported by us, we felt supported by them.

This fact has been the silver lining in all the chaos of the pandemic. The only thing giving me strength to face whatever challenges await in the year ahead.

Alex Lazarus-Klein is the rabbi of Congregation Shir Shalom, a dual affiliated Reform and Reconstructionist Congregation in Buffalo, New York. He is currently a participant in the fourth cohort of the Clergy Leadership Incubator: Training Visionary Spiritual Leaders for the American Jewish Community sponsored by Hazon: The Jewish Lab for Sustainability.

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