by Sondra Baras
April 7, 2020
In February 1991, I had five small children. My youngest was just six months old and my oldest was eight. And we were in lockdown because Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and then started shooting missiles at Israel. Intelligence suggested that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that he might send missiles with chemical or biological warheads to Israel. So we stayed home, seconds from shelters or protected rooms if we had one in the house (we didn’t) and sealed one room in the house with plastic wrap to protect us from chemical or biological warfare. Schools were closed. Offices remained open but many could not go to work because they were caring for their children. There was no internet, no zoom, and Israel had only 1 TV channel at the time. If we did leave the house, for groceries or other essentials, we had to take our gas masks with us.
I was a practicing attorney at the time but handed back my cases and stayed home with my children. My husband went to work part of the time and then was drafted into the IDF for the remainder. Even then, I was active in media advocacy on the behalf of the settlement movement and I remember one phone interview with a radio station in particular. I was holding my baby in one hand, the phone in the other and was trying to find a quiet space in the house to talk. I remember describing our lives in Israel in the wake of the Gulf War and meeting incredulity on the other side. We were alone in the challenges we were facing.
As we face the current coronavirus crisis, there is so much déjà vu in it all. The staying at home, the cancellation of school. But so much different as well. One of the major differences is the fact that, for the first time in Israel’s history, we are facing a crisis that is shared by nations all over the world. International health organizations rate Israel’s success in slowing the spread of this virus as top in the world and it’s obvious why.
We are a nation accustomed to crisis. Our governments know how to communicate the crisis to the people and the people react instantaneously, in solidarity and in obedience. When the government said stay home we did. When the government said don’t visit your neighbors, don’t go to the park, and when you do go out for essential services, wear a mask, we do. When the government closed the synagogues, as painful as this has been, they have been closed. But while we are ahead of the curve, I have to say it does feel good to know that our solidarity runs beyond our borders, that we are sharing a crisis with most nations in the world. Of course, it would be better if none of us faced this crisis, but sharing it reminds us of our shared humanity and that is a good thing.
But there is something about what we are facing that is different from other countries because of our nature. Judaism is not just a religion and it is not just a nationality. It is peoplehood but more fundamentally, it is community and family. As a nation exiled from our homeland for most of our history, we remained a nation not only because we sustained a common belief but also because we identified with each other as sharing the same community, even the same family. And even in Israel, where our nationality finds expression in modern citizenship, we still carry with us that ancient notion of family and community. We seek each other. We need each other.
When we go to synagogue, we don’t just go to pray. We go to see and take part in the community. And it doesn’t matter if there is a rabbi or not. We are not there for the sermons, although we enjoy the teaching. We are there to pray together and to strengthen our bonds with one another.
Shabbat is a central figure in our lives. It is a day when we gather as extended families and friends, stop in and visit with neighbors and go to the synagogue in larger numbers than during the week. Passover seder is a time when extended families celebrate together, typically more than a dozen people and often more than 20 will gather in one house for the wonderful occasion. Central to the seder is the notion that we are passing on our traditions to the next generation, as our parents passed them on to us.
This year, all of that is missing. For the 3rd week in a row, we did not go out of the house on Shabbat except to walk the permitted 100 meters from our home. We didn’t have company. We prayed silently at home. On occasion, our neighbors gathered outside, each on their own front yards or driveways, and prayed together across 8 or 10 homes. Or exchanged news of family. It gave us a sense of community, of sorts, better than nothing. On Wednesday night, we will celebrate the Passover seder alone — just my husband and me in my home and each of my friends will be celebrating in the same way, as our children have all grown and left the house. Each of our children will celebrate on their own with their own small families. My mother will be on her own in Jerusalem. The rules are clear — a seder can only include those who live in the same house all year long. And we will obey—it is too dangerous otherwise.
But I thank G-d that both my husband and I are still employed. Of course, CFOIC Heartland keeps me very busy and we can do everything from home with the wonderful modern technology of internet, facebook, and the good old-fashioned telephone. But when I consider some of my neighbors and so many all over Israel, it is truly tragic. All stores, restaurants, places of entertainment have been shut for weeks. Tour guides with no business, hotels closed. All factories and most workplaces have been forced to cut their operations by more than 70%. Unemployment rates are at an all-time high as are small business closures. No one knows how long this will last and how many businesses will re-open or will not weather the crisis.
I know this has been difficult for so many people but it has been particularly hard in Israel. Because we have taken such drastic measures, we have saved lives. But we have also put our economy in a downturn.
As we approach Passover, we are reminded of the first Passover the Children of Israel celebrated in Egypt: “And you, no man should leave the door of his house until morning and the Lord will pass to strike Egypt… And he will not allow the destroyer to come to your houses and strike.” (Exodus 12:22-23) May G-d protect us all, and keep us all safe from this terrible plague, as we remain in our homes, reminding ourselves of that first miracle Passover thousands of years ago, praying for redemption.