From Rabbi Rosalind Glazer

A Letter to Sof Ma’arav

I’ve thought of you often while sheltering in place and I dearly hope you have been well. From my home in Jerusalem, I marvel at the inextricable bond between our hearts across 13 time zones and thousands of miles. I am inspired by your shul’s founders in choosing the phrase coined by the liturgical poet Yehuda HaLevy “Sof Ma’arav –The Edge of the West” as your name, and I admire the community you’ve built and continue to nurture in these challenging times. You’ve creatively adapted to hosting and attending services and gatherings online and I only regret that the time difference has made it difficult to join you.

Since late January, and then as the circumstances of our lives shifted into stay-at-home mode, I’ve been in contact with Robert Littman and Sandra Armstrong to confirm our intentions to be together again for yet a fourth High Holiday season! I am delighted and very much looking forward to bringing in 5781 with you, whether from the bimah at our Unitarian Universalist site on the Pali or via Zoom from across the world.

Now remaining closer in touch with family, friends and colleagues via the internet than ever before, it strikes me how the pandemic has made us so much more conscious of our global oneness. We all share the enormous impact that Covid-19 has had on our lives, a deep concern for each other’s safety and well-being, gratitude for our healthcare and essential workers, and a mutual yearning to extinguish this virus and find a vaccine as soon as possible. If it wasn’t evidently clear before, we’ve learned that not only do babies fail to thrive without human contact, but we adults have the same basic human need. Being together is so essential to our fundamental sense that “all will be well” that we have quickly harnessed both our creativity and ingenuity to plan gatherings that will sustain us until we can meet again for shared adventures, harmonious singing, praying in unison and those oh-so-festive and delicious potluck meals!

While we are glued to the news as an essential source of information (and also challenged by the reliability of these sources) there is nothing like a story from a trusted friend to get a glimmer of what life is like “out there.” And while I can only share my own experience of life in Jerusalem during the pandemic rather than report on the whole of Israel, I hope you will enjoy reading a bit about my own perspective “on the ground.” About 10 weeks ago, Kehilat Zion began presenting daily and weekly online programs.

Beginning at 8 am, my friend and colleague Rabbah Tamar Elad Appelbaum has offered a morning message via WhatsApp, focusing on uplifting messages in the psalms or expounding on the spiritual lessons of the Omer count. A 10-10:30 am session has followed with a body-mind offering from rotating leaders from our knowledgeable members in the healing professions. A mid-day lunch and learn has been presented in conjunction with collaborators, teachers and scholars from around the country. At 4 pm 30 minutes of storytelling has been offered by our student rabbi and an evening gathering at 8:30 pm has concluded the day,  frequently presented in partnership with organizations with whom we have partnered in the past or who share our vision of a Jerusalem for all its citizens. A weekly poetic and musical Kabbalat Shabbat is hosted in partnership by us, with Rabbi Benny Lau and the Israeli Jewish Outreach Organization, “929.” On one very inspiring evening as many as 800 folks tuned in to our pre-Shabbat gathering that always ends early enough to accommodate those who observe an Orthodox halachic Shabbat.

During these weeks and months, together we’ve marked and celebrated Yom HaShoah, Yom ha Zikaron, Yom HaAtzmeut and Yom Yerushalayim and supported our Christian and Muslim friends in their observances of Easter and Ramadan, just as in “normal” times they’ve joined us for erev Shabbat services. While we Jerusalemites are normally accustomed to encountering the “other” in public spaces, during the shutdown Kehilat Zion has intentionally prioritized our commitment to continue building of bridges over our invisible lines of separation by creating online meetings in our homes and neighborhoods. One organization that does this best is called “0202.” The digits 02 represent Jerusalem’s area code and the number doubled betrays the reality that Jerusalem and its population is still largely divided into East and West. Joined back to back it also symbolically points to the ways in which we are one city and the commitment by its founders to work to break down barriers that separate us. Because suspicion and xenophobia grow their ugliness in the dark, intentional meetings and conversations can help bring familiarity, hope, light and even friendship between the two Jerusalems.

Table Set for Shabbat

This year, for our annual Ma’aminim gathering – when Kehilat Zion normally joins with community partners at Jerusalem’s First Station to share music, stories and information about our shared initiatives and projects – we presented an online interfaith and multimedia event in partnership with the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival known as Mekudeshet. The outcome of this year’s efforts was a remarkable event that was beautiful, thought provoking and profoundly moving. At one point Rabbah Tamar who had traveled to visit Sufi Sheikh Ihab Balha at his home in Jaffa, gifted him with a shofar, a symbol of the outcry of the broken heart. Sheikh Ihab, whom I have met and spoken to on several occasions, told Tamar that it was the most beautiful gift he had ever received! Afterward, Ihab is shown in Jerusalem visiting with another dear friend of of Kehilat Zion, Fr. Alberto Pari, at the Hebrew Speaking Catholic Church in downtown Jerusalem, each of these young men clad in their traditional religious garb. Sheikh Ihab listened with a full heart and empathetic ear to the tearful and heart wrenching stories about the carnage the virus has wrought on Fr. Pari’s home community in Italy. Afterward, to lighten things up a bit, they played a rousing and fun game of ping pong in the Church’s rec room.

Today in Israel, new diagnoses are slowing to a stop. The number of recoveries are rising and national casualties remain under 300. While every life lost is precious to God and to grieving families and communities, it is good to note that with fewer elders living in shared residences, Israel has suffered fewer deaths per capita in our elder population than in many other countries including the United States.

As we moved from total lockdown to an easing of restrictions – first from the allowable 100 meters to stray from our homes, to 500 meters of distance permitted for exercise, to temperature checks when entering stores, to queues standing 2 meters apart and limited shoppers inside, to the requirement to wear masks (eased during the recent 100+ Fahrenheit heat wave), the rules have been constantly changing and downright confusing. Waiting in line outside for 90 minutes for pre-Pesach food shopping, we also saw an almost complete standstill of traffic. Now more vehicles are appearing on the roads and

with them more car exhaust for those who are out walking in the newly found fresh air.

These times continue to challenge us all and the greatest impact has been borne by the least advantaged populations. For those who travel exclusively on public transit, like me, the choice to go anywhere means risking infection. Shops and restaurants in my once bustling neighborhood of Jerusalem’s German Colony have begun closing permanently due to lack of sufficient patronage. And since so much of our economy depends on tourism and travel (including my own practice officiating at lifecycle events) the drop of income has been staggering. Our need for creativity, sharing insights, friendship, laughter, spiritual and emotional uplift and occasions to celebrate has become particularly clear at this time. While looking ahead toward better times, we are taking joy in small things.

Goats playing

One thing that has been particular uplifting for me during shutdown is having taught myself how to make the tasty probiotic elixir, Kombucha. It began with a friend who delivered the starter liquid, literally hours before orders were given to stay at home. As the virus wafted through the air and more and more folks were infected, the delicious probiotic drink – a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast – was growing in my own home. As I mastered the technique, I was invited by Kehilat Zion to teach a 3-part class at 10 am for three Tuesdays running. And now a group of friends and neighbors have become Jerusalem’s first ever Kombucha Makers Community (JKMC). For Yom HaAtzmeut, 3 Israeli Reconstructionist rabbis, including me were recruited to a Zoom conversation that was recorded and viewable on FaceBook. And I also recorded a mini-video for the celebration of Israel’s 72nd birthday. Most recently I presented songs and prayers with Yahala Lachmish, Kehilat Zion’s co-musical director, at KOLEYNU, the first ever online Jewish wisdom and music festival, also recorded live on Facebook.

Piano on a balcony

One by one as we’ve slowly begun to emerge from our homes, I’ve welcomed visits from each of my two sisters, attended a socially distanced Shabbat dinner with two friends, ordered and ate my first take-out falafel sandwich and planned a Shavuot trip to the Kibbutz where I lived after making Aliyah eight years ago. Each time I head out I feel the world is at once exciting, scary, new and tenuous. Living fully with whatever life presents requires us to banish the illusion that we humans are (or ever were) in charge.  Like the unetaneh tokef we chant at musaf on the High Holidays, let’s pray that the bitter decrees will be made sweet through our teshuvah, prayers and righteousness, that moments of pain and harshness will be softened by our generosity, kindness and compassion and that we can learn to fully appreciate and accept the gifts of this life with humility and gratitude.

I warmly invite you to enjoy melodies I recorded on my SoundCloud for last year’s High Holidays but which unfortunately weren’t distributed in time. ENJOY! https://soundcloud.com/user-578874745/sets/elul-and-high-holiday-melodies

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