In a rare moment of quiet this morning, I was cruising social media and came upon a post from a friend that surprised me. Within it, she muses that the social isolation of quarantine has exposed her and her family to the reality that, at the end of the day, they no longer really need a community. That her growing feelings of independence might likely affect her family in the future, beyond just surviving the pandemic, when life returns to a semblance of normalcy.
I sat over my cereal with my mouth agape as I read her words, reading them again to make sure I understood them properly. I then sat back, spoon still dangling from my fingers, determined to examine the complexity of my response. My shock at her statements of disloyalty fall into two distinct categories: First, I truly feel completely different. Even in relative isolation, I feel surrounded, supported and comforted by how our community has pulled together.
The second source of my consternation is the halachic implications of such a decision. We may be in quarantine now, prevented from gathering in minyanim now, but what about when the bans are lifted and the heterim (exceptions) expire? Even the practical considerations abound for those who live a Torah lifestyle, setting aside gathering in social and rabbinical contexts, will this new-found independence make it easier to find kosher food in the supermarket? An employer understanding of weeks of time off for Jewish holidays? Teams and leagues for our children that don’t compete on Saturdays?
We may feel alone during this pandemic, but are we really as isolated as we think?
My cereal forgotten, I leaned back against the window seat in my kitchen and looked out at my quiet, residential street. Two of my elderly neighbors in homemade masks just walked by, stepping into the street to avoid another of my neighbors taking her morning run, her toddler strapped into the jogging stroller. This afternoon, my neighbor across the street will be sitting on her lawn, playing with her baby while her other kids play basketball, enjoying the afternoon sunshine before heading in to her shift at the hospital.
The scene in front of her house is played out on the lawns of countless others as I take a social distance walk with my mask-wearing friend who lives on the next street over. We pass kids talking to each other from the edges of their driveways across the street and teachers (that I now recognize from the Zoom classes implemented by our religious day school) hanging out in their windows or doorways to talk to passersby who have paused on their sidewalks or front lawns.
In front of another house, two families, with whom I am acquainted through our synagogue, are having a social distance picnic. Each family enjoys separate orders (from a nearby kosher pizza shop) on separate blankets. The parents and the children chat from double the normal social distance while other neighbors’ children ride their bikes parallel to their friends on opposite sides of the street. Before quarantine, these actions were mostly invisible. People visited with each other inside their homes and their children played in the backyards. Our interactions and friendships are now much more visible.
So what does this have to do with being in a Jewish community? Surely, this scene is similar to scenes in secular communities as well. In the Ethics of Our Fathers, Hillel brings down the teaching, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” This is for the sake of the community as well as for the sake of the individual. Can a few months of self-sufficient isolation unravel our reliance on a strong Jewish environment?
I would argue that it cannot, because what I have seen in this pandemic is that we are far from self-sufficient. I see examples every day of people leaning — and leaning heavily — on our community. When the lockdowns first began, the lines of communication established by our religious institutions lit up like a switchboard. Congregants mobilized to protect the vulnerable, selflessly offering grocery pickups to others and the opportunity to “hop in” on online orders. Neighbors started swapping toys and backyard playground equipment at a faster rate than ever to improve each other’s quarantine situations. Parshah classes, learning groups and chevrutas have gone online and flood the internet, connecting our communities to perhaps an even greater extent than they had before.
Our bonds are not getting weaker, they are getting stronger, and it is only possible because of the foundation upon which our community was built. We may feel remote from the concept of minyan and kiddush, but we mustn’t forget what it was that brought us here in the first place. Humans are social creatures: Wherever we go we surround ourselves with a community of like-minded individuals. Our love of Hashem and our desire to live in adherence to Torah law brought us to this community and to these friendships and bonds that remain even after our synagogues (temporarily) closed their doors.
School may be remote, but the fact that two of my daughter’s kindergarten teachers live on our street and frequently walk past our house and wave to her means the world to a 6 year old. Just last week, a delegation of preschool teachers (each in their own car) dropped by and stood at a social distance to take pictures of my preschool graduate on our lawn.
That is why, out of all the places in the world, I planted my growing family here. That sense of community and family is why I chose to move here instead of someplace with bigger homes or a lower cost of living. We are not just adherents to a religion obsessed with rules and laws, we are a family and families live together.
After all is said and done, while I struggle to empathize with my friend’s experience, I still respect her opinion, even if I don’t support her choice. The life that I have chosen for my family is not the correct path for everyone. We all have to make our own decisions and make the choice that fits us (and our family) best, but I know where I want to be when the fog lifts.
L.E. Nizhnikov is a fiction writer who lives in Silver Spring, where she is a stay-at-home mother of five.