September 1, 2020
by Sondra Baras
Even though summer weather continues in Israel until well into October, as August draws to a close and September begins, we mark the end of summer. Probably because school begins on the 1st of September. So last night, a few friends of mine got together to mark the end of summer by going out to the beach in Herzliya. We were five middle-aged women, at the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, sitting on blankets or beach chairs, chatting. We watched and listened to the waves crashing onto the shore, we got our feet wet in the water, and we breathed the fresh sea air.
And we tried to gain some level of understanding of all that we have experienced during these past 6 months.
With the social distancing that has been in place in one form or another for all that time, we enjoyed the fellowship of 5 women together. In those old pre-Corona days, we would frequently have company for Shabbat meals, sometimes 2 or 3 couples at a time. Meals would be joyous and noisy and we could catch up with one another. Or we would see each other outside of synagogue and hang around and chat after the service.
Today, few go to the synagogue. Prayer services have cropped up on streets all over the community but they are just prayer services. No chatting, no socializing. Keep your distance, pray and go home.
I am hosting my children and grandchildren freely, a decision that my husband and I took after the initial weeks of lockdown, but many of my friends are not. They will visit with their children and grandchildren outdoors only, for a limited time and with no hugging or kissing. And friends are not gathering except on occasion and outdoors.
The High Holidays are fast approaching and instead of crowded synagogues with barely enough space to walk or breathe, we are gathering in the streets, in backyards, and outside the synagogue. Just a few will be allowed in the synagogue. But each service will be small, limited to 40 or 50 people. And the services will be shorter as it is difficult to sit outside for too long in the Israeli summer climate. And with so many services going on, that many more people have to learn to blow the shofar, read the Torah portion or lead the service. Everyone is scrambling to ensure that even our more modest service will be meaningful.
Jewish tradition relies heavily on community and family but as community and family gatherings have been severely limited, we struggle to find alternative ways to connect to our tradition and to find meaning in our new way of living. Even the simplest fact of a mask creates barriers. When I walk down my street and see a neighbor coming towards me, rather than a spontaneous greeting to a friend, I have to first figure out who is the person behind the mask. The usual smile and silent greeting to someone who comes into the synagogue, without interrupting a prayer, is impossible when your friend cannot see your smile.
I am sure that there are neighbors and friends who are suffering financially. Or who are alone and feeling down because of it. But it is so hard to know who they are because we aren’t seeing them. So many, especially the elderly, are frightened to go outdoors, frightened to come too close to someone who might end up being contagious. We have to hope that their good friends, immediate neighbors or relatives will notice if they have a special need and will let the rest of us know. Those of us with elderly parents are in touch with them on a regular basis, trying to keep them from feeling lonely and overwhelmed.
Last night, as we sat on the beach, we kept saying to one another how nice it was just to get together. There on the beach, in the open air, we were able to sit at a distance from one another but still talk, and we could even remove our masks for short breathers or a snack.
We are all beyond the age of having school children but some of us have young mothers and fathers working for us. And even the day before school starts, it is still not clear what hours and days the children will be in school and if our employees will be able to work normal hours. One of my friends mentioned that while on the phone to make a doctor’s appointment, she heard a baby crying in the background and realized the appointment secretary was working from home.
My husband and I moved to Karnei Shomron 33 years ago. We wanted to raise our children in a community, where everyone knew one another, where joyous occasions and tragedies were shared by neighbors and friends. And we wanted to settle the Land of Israel, help build up the controversial yet vital Biblical Heartland. Karnei Shomron has grown since then and we no longer know everyone. Two of our sons have returned and built their own homes in the town, creating their own new circle of friends and community in new neighborhoods. We are able to stop over and visit with them and with our grandchildren often. As a family, we are as close-knit as ever.
But Corona has changed so much. Instead of going to the beach last night, we would have all gathered in the town center for the annual end-of-summer concert. Thousands would be there, young and old, chatting and enjoying. We would buy cotton candy for the grandchildren and catch up with friends. We would all feel part of one growing, dynamic, yet cohesive community.
Our community is still cohesive. We care about one another and yearn for a togetherness we can see and feel. And we wonder — will Corona change everything? Is this a temporary snag and once a vaccine is found we will all go back to the way it was? Or has something changed for good? And will that change bring us blessing or will we be seriously challenged to rediscover a new way to connect, to move forward, to feel part of a strong and nurturing community? Only G-d knows.