How we create community from a social distance


By Gil Preuss

Particularly in times of crisis, Jews turn to their synagogues and other spiritual gathering places to find solace and a sense of community. This is true for Americans of all faiths and traditions — our instinct is to shake each other’s hands and stand by each other’s side.

Today, however, as we prepare to face the inevitable peak of the coronavirus pandemic, the most responsible thing we can do is stay away from each other. And so, as Jews, we face an unprecedented challenge: to create a strong and palpable sense of community from afar.

Of course, this is not the first time we have had to innovate. Jewish history is full of moments in which we have overcome our circumstances. The question is, how will we rise to the occasion this time?

I believe the first step must be to cultivate as many opportunities for human connection as possible. We must follow recommended and mandated guidelines, no question. We must keep an eye on the news and pay attention to local developments. But beyond that, I would argue that we have an extra obligation. Our teachings call on us to rise above the fear and uncertainty and reach out to one another to cultivate joy, positivity and a sense of humanity.

To that end, The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is continuing to place special emphasis on helping our community members connect with purpose during this uncertain time. Though we may be separated by distance, we can come together virtually for learning opportunities, briefings, prayer services and more.

We are also working diligently to support the dedicated organizations that are helping to keep our community informed and well cared for. Over the past two weeks, we have brought 181 organizations, institutions, and synagogues together to identify challenges and swap ideas and plans for ways to address them.

The Federation has pledged $500,000 from our emergency reserve fund to aid in our community’s response. We have also launched a COVID-19 relief fund that will go toward supporting our most vulnerable community members and vital institutions. As of Monday, $2.7 million had been pledged to it.

With Passover on the horizon, we can all be hubs for care and connection. Perhaps we can experiment with virtual seders, in which we share in the joy and celebration of Passover simultaneously within our own homes.

I know of one minyan hosting a virtual storytelling hour, in which people join by video to share both funny and emotional reports from quarantine. Sixth & I and many other synagogues in the area are offering virtual classes and Shabbat experiences. The Federation’s Israeli shlichim (emissaries), who usually work in our congregations, schools and JCCs, are running Life: Online, a new virtual education program that includes cooking classes, Jewish philosophy discussions and Shabbat rituals.

Or maybe we lend a helping hand to our favorite organizations or small businesses and form virtual giving circles. Whatever your ideas, I encourage you to invite people to be a part of them. Even the smallest effort can make a big difference right now.

Faith traditions are prescient in this way. Coursing through the Torah and the Talmud is the understanding that we must attend to our physical health. As a community, we are responsible for taking the necessary precautions to keep ourselves and our neighbors healthy.

But just as importantly, our ancestors understood that we are sustained by our emotional and spiritual bonds. We are meant to be in relationship with one another, to share in this rollercoaster ride and create the joy we need in our lives.

Responding to this challenge is about more than just getting through it. The Jewish response is, and has always been, about finding those opportunities for connection in a way that sustains us all.

Gil Preuss is CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

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